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Sunday 29 January 2012

Daniels may yet be the Republicans’ White Knight

Truly, these days there are few dull moments in the reality show that is the 2012 US election.

Last week began with Newt Gingrich triumphant after snatching the South Carolina Republican primary from Mitt Romney, by brilliantly and simultaneously playing bully and victim. 

On Tuesday night, the spotlight shifted to President Obama, whose State of the Union speech bashing the rich and the right left viewers in no doubt that he is determined to do whatever it takes to win another term.  ‘He’s no Jimmy Carter’ was the refrain for the brief few minutes before Indiana governor Mitch Daniels gave a Republican response so compelling that it discomfited Democrats and began a chant in his own party of ‘Run, Mitch, run’. 

During Thursday night’s debate, crucial for the Florida primary on 31 January, Romney arose from the half-dead and knocked seven bells out of Gingrich.  However, Rick Santorum, who had come first in Iowa and third in South Carolina, and whom everyone had forgotten about, then earned plaudits for lucidly and combatively taking over Gingrich’s role as Romney’s chief tormentor.

Are we any wiser at the end of this week? 

Well, we know that Obama’s no longer relying on what Sarah Palin memorably described as ‘the hopey-changey stuff’ that brought him to the White House last time.  Indeed, the only candidate doing the vision thing these days is Gingrich, who wants a lunar colony.  (During the debate, Ron Paul, who seems stuck in fourth place, raised a laugh with the observation that he wasn’t in favour of going to the moon - though he thought it might be good to send some politicians there.)

Obama’s speech was directed at capturing swing voters and making his dejected party fall in love with him again.   There wasn’t much of substance.  He said little on foreign policy except that Osama bin Laden was no longer a threat and US troops were out of Iraq and almost nothing about the contentious health care reform in which he invested so much time and effort.  With reference to bitter Washington battles with Republicans, he spoke of fighting obstruction rather than reaching consensus.  

The populist theme was built on billionaire Warren Buffet’s observation that because of tax breaks for the rich, he paid less tax than his secretary.  Obama promised to deal with such anomalies, insisting this was not class warfare, but a search for equality and fairness.  It’s a sexy theme, not least because it has emerged that present rules allow multi-millionaire Romney to pay just 14% of his income in federal taxes.  

Mitch Daniels’s response came across as thoughtful, plain-speaking and sensible: it was also generous-spirited.  Voters used to the acrimoniousness of contemporary political debate were impressed by his opening words:  ‘The status of ‘loyal opposition’ imposes on those out of power some serious responsibilities: to show respect for the Presidency and its occupant, to express agreement where it exists.  Republicans tonight salute our President, for instance, for his aggressive pursuit of the murderers of 9/11, and for bravely backing long overdue changes in public education.  I personally would add to that list admiration for the strong family commitment that he and the First Lady have displayed to a nation sorely needing such examples.’

He then went to the heart of what was wrong with the speech: ‘when President Obama claims that the state of our union is anything but grave, he must know in his heart that this is not true.’  A fiscal conservative, he spoke of the mess that is the US economy and Obama’s policy of ramping up the debt in the hope of keeping unemployment figures down.  Obama ‘seems to sincerely believe we can build a middle class out of government jobs paid for with borrowed dollars. In fact, it works the other way: a government as big and bossy as this one is maintained on the backs of the middle class, and those who hope to join it.’ 

As Governor of Indiana, Daniels has been a great success, not least because – unlike Obama – he is good at reaching a consensus with his opponents and can connect easily to the ordinary guy.  He’s short on charisma and not the kind of candidate that gets Tea Partiers hysterical, but that could prove an advantage in the long-run. 

It’s possible that the next few months will see the main Republican contenders wound each other so badly that they arrive limping and bloody into the party convention in August.  Members of the Republican establishment are already plotting about finding a more credible candidate at the last minute and having a brokered nomination.

Right now, the White Knight they’re dreaming about is Daniels.  There’s the small drawback that he keeps making it clear that he doesn’t want to run.  But, hey, this is a reality show.  Anything might happen.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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