Why the Republicans chose Mitch Daniels—the Indiana governor who once thrilled right-wing pundits as a 2012 hopeful—to deliver a rebuttal to President Obama’s State of the Union address is puzzling. His uninspiring remarks surely killed the Daniels fad, revived lately as Republicans fret over the unappetizing choices available in their primaries.
By shining the spotlight on Daniels, the Republicans risked losing much more than a political rescue fantasy. He isn’t merely a politician who looks like an accountant; he actually was an accountant—or at least he played one during the Bush years, when he served as director of the Office of Management and Budget. Listening to him drone on about fiscal rectitude just might have reminded voters of the true source of our national problems.
“Mitch Daniels ... Isn’t he the former Bush budget director who said the Iraq War would cost $50 billion when it ended up costing $3 trillion? The bureaucrat who promoted the Bush tax cuts when we were fighting two wars? The one whose budget projections were so fraudulent that he predicted federal surpluses in 2004 and 2005? Why the hell should we listen to him criticize Obama?”
That last is a highly pertinent question, although whether most viewers could watch Daniels long enough to ask it may be doubtful. Honest economic analysis shows that the great bulk of the deficits going forward stem from spending and taxation decisions made during the Bush era, which Obama is now doing his best to remedy, by bringing troops home from Iraq and ending the Bush tax cuts.
Daniels came close to admitting that embarrassing truth when he said that the president faced problems not of his making. And during the governor’s speech, there were other brief moments when he sounded as if he might want to return to the hustings as his party’s voice of reason. (That won’t happen, not only because nobody in his party wants to remember George W. Bush, but because his personal life is too peculiar to withstand media exposure.) He made a few bipartisan noises, separating himself from the most extreme anti-Obama rhetoric heard in his party.
On the whole, however, Daniels chose to assault Obama using the familiar language of the Republicans in Congress—and with equal dishonesty. There is no need to dwell at length on what he said when a few examples will suffice.
When he said that the president “cannot claim that the last three years have made matters anything but worse”—and attacked the administration for spending “borrowed money” to counter the recession—he must have known that every reputable economist believes the Obama stimulus saved the country from depression.
Having written Indiana’s budget when the stimulus money arrived in his state capital, he certainly knows that without the Recovery Act, unemployment, deficits and suffering on the state and national levels would have been far worse. He took nearly $2 billion that Obama sent to Indiana—the money he said the president “borrowed and blew”—because it saved his state’s budgets and jobs, and made him look good. And he also knows that the Bush administration’s squandering of the Clinton surplus left Obama with little choice except to borrow when the recession struck.
Daniels promised that Republicans would “level” with us about the hard fiscal facts—but he lacked the courage to admit that raising taxes will eventually be part of any realistic solution. It was certainly part of his own solution to difficulties in Indiana, where he balanced state budgets not only by using federal stimulus money, but by raising the sales tax.
He is far from the worst in his party, but he is no political savior. With nothing to lose, he could have served a real purpose by challenging his own party to confront basic facts about spending and taxes that he could not avoid as governor. He is fortunate that this political moment—and his choice of pander over candor—will be instantly forgotten.
Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com.