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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Mitch Daniels and the Gravitas Lobby

In a recent profile of the proto-candidacy of Mitch Daniels, I predicted that the Very Serious People in Washington would begin caterwauling for his entry into the race.
This does indeed seem to be happening, if the Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza is listening to the appropriate Republican Beltway poohbahs, which he is certainly well-positioned to do. Last week’s minor-candidate-dominated South Carolina debate seems to have been the tipping point for Very Serious People who want Mitch to get in to stop all the crazy social-issues pandering:

The GOP presidential race has been defined by relative chaos — and weakness — among the field.
That was reinforced at last week’s first presidential debate of the season, which, aside from former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, featured a handful of long shots and no-shots debating such topics as the legalization of marijuana — and even heroin.
Daniels is regarded (and regards himself) as a candidate of considerable gravity, willing to focus on making tough choices about the nation’s financial future even if that conversation is politically unpopular. (At a February speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, he said that “purity in martyrdom is for suicide bombers.”)
A Daniels candidacy probably would be taken as a sign that the games are over for the Republican Party, that it is time to buckle down and organize to beat President Obama.
“He will turn a race that is about less serious politics into a race about more serious policy,” argued Alex Castellanos, a Republican media consultant who is not aligned with any candidate heading into 2012. “Daniels is the adult in the room saying the party is over, it’s time to clean house. That contrast in maturity is how a Republican beats Obama.”

Now if I were a social conservative activist, I’d be pretty annoyed with all the veiled suggestions from Washington that my set of issues was for children, while fiscal stuff was for adults. This is why Daniels’ repeated call for a “truce” on cultural issues drives people who get up in the morning to fight abortion or gay marriage absolutely nuts.
But totally aside from the intra-Republican factional implications of the lobbying for Daniels, you have to question the planted axiom that Very Serious Talk about debts and deficits is the obvious way to beat Barack Obama. Daniels is hard to distinguish from Paul Ryan in terms of his thinking about how to deal with what he calls the “red menace” of debt, particularly in his enthusiasm for a massive restructuring of Medicare. This is not popular, and is likely to become much less popular as people begin to understand that “premium support” in the context of Medicare would mean a fixed and limited federal contribution to help pay for ever-more-expensive and hard-to-get private health insurance policies.
I strongly suspect that Very Serious People love Daniels because they think he is serious enough not only to keep the social-issues fanatics in the closet, but to find a way to guide his party in the direction of a deficit reduction compromise involving tax increases, as all “adults” understand will be necessary.
But if Daniels were indeed that sort of magical figure, the last thing on earth you’d want him to do is to run for president. The GOP presidential nominating contest in 2012 is absolutely certain to involve a long series of activist-imposed litmus tests. For Daniels, number one will be renouncing the “truce.” And number two will be an irrevocable, tattooed-on-the-skin promise to never, ever consider tax increases, even if the world is crumbling. That’s just the way the game is played in the GOP, particularly ever since George H.W. Bush agreed to a bipartisan deficit reduction package in 1990.
If Daniels does decide to run (and he could make an announcement as early as this week), the Gravitas Lobby will fill the air with as much excitement as it is possible to convey with respect to such a sober and adult proposition. Whether this excitement is communicable to the actual nomination campaign trail, where the people that Pew calls Staunch Conservatives are totally in charge, is a truly serious question.

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