Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels did not get the memo about CPAC, the annual gathering of conservatives in Washington. The etiquette is that presidential wannabes should hew to a narrow band of harsh and harsher denunciations of liberalism, or anything suspected of having a liberal taint.
Last year, the impressively earnest and bright former governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, resolutely denounced brie-eating, although he had not hitherto been known for his hostility to the French-derived soft cheese.
That's what pandering does. Daniels, in contrast, seems temperamentally incapable of unseriousness; he is the anti-panderer. He gave a speech at CPAC that was characteristically thoughtful, standing out in his willingness to tell hard truths about the nation's fiscal condition and to challenge his audience.
Daniels spoke in favor of principled compromise -- "should the best way be blocked," he argued, "then someone will need to find the second-best way." He called for reaching beyond the conservative base to voters "who surf past C-SPAN to get to SportsCenter." He said the right "should distinguish carefully skepticism about Big Government from contempt for all government." He plugged civility.
This was not a typical CPAC speech, in fact not a typical speech for any politician anywhere. Daniels struck these admonitory notes not to lecture friends, but to prepare them to summon all the persuasiveness and coalition-building necessary to fight "the Red Menace," his phrase for "the debts our nation has amassed for itself over decades of indulgence."
Everyone knows and everyone says popular entitlement programs imperil the country's fiscal health. Then, the conversation usually ends.
Freshman Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-Ill., appeared on "Meet the Press" during the weekend to say that "everything is on the table," before mumbling and looking at his shoes when asked for details. President Barack Obama took the bold step a year ago of appointing a fiscal commission to study the issue. He hid behind the commission while it was at work, saying he couldn't pre-empt it; now that it has issued a specific report, he simply ignores it.
Out of this miasma of evasion, Mitch Daniels strides purposefully, walking all over the third rail in his deliberate, plain-spoken Hoosier-style. At CPAC, he said it's time to bid "an affectionate thank-you to the major social welfare programs of the last century." If the Democratic National Committee doesn't have this sound bite already filed away for a negative ad should he run for president, someone should be fired.
Daniels advocates "new Social Security and Medicare compacts." Over time, he wants to change the programs so that they focus on the neediest, grow with inflation but not faster, and feature more flexibility and choice. In pursuit of his overall vision of fiscal rectitude, Daniels is willing to put defense on the chopping block and relegate cultural issues to the far back burner. Conservative sacred cows, too, must go to the slaughterhouse.
As a former Office of Management and Budget director, Daniels lets his green eyeshade occasionally obscure his vision. The idea of a "truce," as he once put it, in the culture war is preposterous. A basic conflict of visions about the meaning of virtue and justice can't be suppressed, no matter how devoutly budget wonks might wish it.
Daniels spoke compellingly at CPAC about the need for economic growth and about the struggles of the middle class, but made them subordinate to the overriding question of the debt. This has it backward. Growth and middle-class vitality should be the foremost goals of our economic policy, with debt reduction merely a means to help achieve them. For all their worship of Ronald Reagan, Republicans sound at times as if they are reverting all the way back to Eisenhower-era deficit phobia.
To all of this, Daniels the anti-panderer would surely say, "Here I stand, I can do no other." At CPAC, he again proved himself centered, cleareyed and honest. He's the kind of guy who makes you think, "He should run for president -- and probably won't."