- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 29, 2009

Mitch Daniels might be the best-kept secret in the country as well as in his own Republican Party.

Except among the conservative movement’s cognoscenti, Mr. Daniels is not on the list of usual suspects in barroom and living-room speculation about likely 2012 Republican presidential candidates.

The second-term governor of Indiana hasn’t traveled much outside his state since he left his post as President Bush’s Office of Management and Budget director in 2003. Yet the former Reagan White House adviser talks with the libertarian- and conservative-sounding conviction that might be expected to grab the attention of even the most politician-disdaining activist in the emerging tea-party movement.

When the subject turned to taxes and spending at the recent Republican Governors Association meeting in Austin, Texas, Mr. Daniels made clear his dislike of both, but not out of the green-eyeshade miserliness that cartoonists — and opposition designers of TV campaign ads — long have used to stereotype the fiscal creed of Republicans.

Rather, Mr. Daniels’ parsimony is, in his eyes, the instrument by which elected public officials show their respect for the freedom of the individual.

“The essence of our nation is the protection of individual liberties,” he says in an interview with The Washington Times. “That means, for example, never take a dollar from a free citizen through the coercion of taxation without a very legitimate purpose.

“And then we have a solemn duty to spend that dollar as carefully as possible, because when we took it we diminished that person’s freedom. Otherwise, that citizen could spend that dollar on something he or she chose. This is an obligation of everybody who serves in government.”

There even appears to be some correlation between his words and his deeds.

Having been a manager in the worlds of business and politics for most of his 60 years on the planet, Mr. Daniels has the kind of experience any candidate thinking about running for the nation’s highest office would die for.

A Princeton graduate from a modest family background, he conveys in conversation the image of the quiet-spoken libertarian-populist for whom braggadocio is simply unthinkable. Getting him to talk about his accomplishments isn’t easy. “I want to look to the future,” he says.

Nonetheless, he has served as an administrative assistant to Richard G. Lugar, then the Indianapolis mayor and now a U.S. senator; executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the GOP’s campaign fundraising and candidate recruitment organization; a political adviser in the Reagan White House; CEO of the brainy Hudson Institute; president of Eli Lilly’s North American pharmaceutical operations; and as OMB director for President George W. Bush.

He has been governor of Indiana since 2005.

Ask him if he will seek the 2012 GOP presidential nomination and he repeats his oft-stated “no.”

He says he has “encouraged a few good people to run and will continue to look for other people who may be able to frame the issues important to the country.”

Like what?

For one thing, “a colossally unsustainable [national] debt load — an unfair, even immoral burden we’ve deposited on our young people,” he says.

“The threat of Islamic fundamentalism coupled with its ability to take advantage of modern technology,” for another.

And then there’s “our reliance on energy purchased from people who use the money in ways contrary to American interests.”

Ask him to crow about his gubernatorial accomplishments, and he flatly refuses. Press him by asking if there’s anything he’s proud of having done in office, and you learn he is “pleased” he took a state that was in bankruptcy when he came into office “and put it in the best fiscal position ever,” though he acknowledges that holding on to that status is tough in this economy.

He says Indiana is now among the leading states considered by businesses as good places to settle.

“When it comes to low-cost, pro-growth states that give reasons for businesses to locate, we’re alone in the Midwest, almost alone outside the Sun Belt,” he says. “That’s important for the long term.”

Beginning to warm to the subject, he says, “We’re the only state with a fully funded infrastructure plan. Other states can’t even patch what they have. We are breaking records for infrastructure. We did it without any tax increases or any borrowing.”

How did he do all this without a tax hike to which even some self-proclaimed conservative Republican governors have resorted?

“We leased the Indiana toll road for an astonishing amount of money — $3.9 billion,” he says with the hint of a smile.” And it’s been reinvested along with our gas-tax money. We’re building projects that will be there for our children and our grandchildren.”

When it comes to taxes in general — and in particular property taxes, the cause of taxpayer revolts in some other states — Mr. Daniels says, “We effected the biggest tax cut in Indiana history. More than $1 billion. We cut property taxes by a third statewide. And we capped them so that we have the seventh-lowest property taxes in the country.”

How about state payrolls — the necessary element of making state government work as well as the unsupportable burden that has driven other states to near bankruptcy?

“We have the fewest state employees since 1983,” Mr. Daniels says. “We have reduced per capita state spending as measured in real [inflation corrected] dollars by 1.3 percent a year. Most states are still growing spending.”

Even here, Mr. Daniels feels he needs to minimize his own achievement. “Let’s be clear,” he injects. “We didn’t have a choice. We came into a situation of bankruptcy and had to work on it.”

One accomplishment motorists in other states can relate to is dealing with automobile registration and licensing bureaucracy.

“We had a bureau of motor vehicles that was everybody’s laughingstock a few years ago, and it won the award for the best in America last year,” Mr. Daniels says. “The average time spent in the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles last month was about seven minutes.”

How did he do that?

“We paid people more if the customer was satisfied and if the turnaround times were quick and the work done accurately,” he says. “If the reverse was true, they got paid less or were fired. We took the savings and invested them in modernizing our system, so that the remaining branches became cleaner, better located, better-trained staff, better technology.”

“How brilliant is that?” Mr. Daniels asks rhetorically. “It’s not. It’s perfectly obvious as a solution. Only in government would that sound strange.”

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