Mitch Daniels was never going to be president. Too bad.
There was a brief boomlet around the former Indiana governor before the 2012 election, but people quickly found out who he really was: Daniels was too boring, too wonky, too level-headed, too focused on fiscal policy, too unwilling to fight the culture wars. And as some observers noted, he was short.
He was, in other words, too competent and too sensible for a political office that, especially now, could benefit from some competence and common sense.
Since leaving the governor’s office, Daniels has stepped away from politics and taken the top job at Purdue University, which, as George Will wrote in 2016, now has the president the entire country should.
As president of Purdue, Daniels has preached the virtues of hard work and self-determination. He has also put the university itself on excellent footing. Since Daniels took the job in 2013, tuition has been frozen. Accounting for inflation, the Ohio University economist Richard Vedder estimates that the effect is something like a 10 percent reduction in tuition, even as costs at other universities have soared.
The school has also created an unusual financing mechanism called an Income Share Agreement. Under this system, the school contributes a portion of the tuition fees in exchange for a small cut of the student’s post-graduation income, treating students, essentially, as investments. In other words, it makes the school more affordable and accessible to the student body while creating a revenue stream for the institution.
Vedder notes that the school has also started making and selling one of the most important elements of the college experience in-house: beer.
Boiler Gold American Golden Ale is the first beer developed by Purdue, quickly selling out at this year’s first football game. As President Daniels has explained to me, Purdue has a rich agricultural tradition, and beer is an agricultural product—I believe the hops are grown nearby under Purdue’s direction. Purdue has a Hops and Brewing Analysis Lab, a School of Food Science, and so forth.
Improving the productivity and utility of agriculture was a core mission of schools like Purdue created out of the 1862 Morrill Act. Money made from beer sales is supporting agricultural research (as well as Purdue athletics). Research into developing craft beers has led to a partnership with an alumnus who does the actual brewing for Purdue.
Although he has focused on running the university, Daniels hasn’t gone completely silent on national political issues. In an op-ed for The Washington Post [Tuesday], Daniels tackles state-level budget problems, arguing against a federal rescue plan:
Sooner or later, we can anticipate pleas for nationalization of these impossible obligations. Get ready for the siren sounds of sophistry, in arguments for subsidy of the poor by the prudent.
In fact, this balloon was already floated once, during the crunch of the recent recession. In 2009, California politicians called for a “dynamic partnership” with the federal government. Money from other states, they said, would be an “investment” and certainly not a bailout. They didn’t succeed directly, although they walked away with $8 billion of federally borrowed “stimulus” money. Such a heist will be harder to justify in the absence of a national economic emergency.
In the blizzard of euphemisms, one can expect a clever argument might appear, likening the bailout to another important compromise of the founding period: the assumption of state debts by the new federal government. But that won’t wash. Those were debts incurred in a battle for survival and independence common to all 13 colonies, not an attempt to socialize away the consequences of individual states’ multi-decade spending sprees.
[Tuesday], President Donald Trump announced plans to spend $12 billion bailing out businesses harmed by the trade war he started. The contrast is revealing—and more than a little depressing.
As a national politician, Daniels might not have been as exciting or charismatic as some of his competitors (although he was plenty appealing, in an understated way). He might not have tweeted, and if he did, it probably would have been about things like the congressional budget process or the federal deficit. He might have had a domestic policy agenda beyond deficit-financed tax cuts and bipartisan spending deals. I doubt that Daniels, whose personality is defined by a gentle Midwestern reserve, would have started a pointless, unwinnable trade war predicated on proving personal dominance over America’s international rivals.
Which is to say, he almost certainly would not have treated the Oval Office as the set of political reality show on which he was the star. He probably wouldn’t have sparked very many internet flame wars, and the ones he did prompt probably would have been relatively low-heat. But he would have been good at the job of being president—at the nuts and bolts of information gathering and decision making and operational efficiency and level-headed communication about policy decisions.
I’m glad Mitch Daniels is president of Purdue, where he appears to be making a real difference in showing a path forward for public higher ed. But I wish that American voters had been more interested in giving him a bigger job, and every now and then I find myself wistfully imagining what a Daniels presidency might have been like. He’ll never be president of the United States, but he’ll always be president of my heart.
There were other issues beyond Daniels’ disinterest in the job. (Arguably, as someone once put it, anyone who wants to be president is unqualified to, or should not, be president.) Cultural conservatives would have tsk-tsked at Daniels’ being divorced from his wife, even though they remarried. (Reportedly that’s why he decided not to run. Whether that matters anymore in an era where the major parties nominate, a thrice-married candidate and a candidate Married In Name Only is up to the reader to decide.) In terms of buzz (which is blamed on the media, but the media does what its viewers/listeners/readers and advertisers generally want), how could Daniels compete against Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton? If Americans were OK with boring candidates who focused on the deficit, we could have had Paul Tsongas as president in 1992 instead of Slick Willie.