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Daniels Auditions for the Chattering Classes

While some of the declared candidates are getting ready for their first close-up in South Carolina tonight, one of the principal undeclared candidates is getting plenty of attention on his own. As we noted yesterday, Mitch Daniels was at the American Enterprise Institute displaying his wonkishness in a speech about education reform. He then went to the left-leaning Arab-American Institute’s annual dinner to pick up an award in recognition of his Syrian heritage. The day before he toddled up to New York to have lunch, among other things, with a gathering of pundits including some liberals.

While at times it has been it difficult to get a fix on whether Daniels is serious about running, that lunch would appear to be something of a tipoff that he is ready to take the plunge. It’s hard to believe that a Republican governor of Indiana with no interest in the presidency would bother breaking bread with a group consisting of conservatives like Peggy Noonan and Ramesh Ponnuru and liberals like George Stephanapoulos, Michael Kinsley, and Josh Marshall. Hendrik Hertzberg wrote about the meeting in the New Yorker, and the upshot is that Daniels came across as a liberal’s idea of a conservative. Judging Daniels on the basis of anything Hertzberg would say is obviously unfair. Every conservative statement that Daniels uttered was interpreted as being said unenthusiastically. That the personable Daniels came across well is not surprising, but the assertion that he is the only Republican candidate who isn’t crazy says more about Hertzberg than the governor.

But the glittering minds at the lunch weren’t able to pull out of Daniels some clear answers about foreign policy, the one topic that the Hoosier governor has tended to avoid. Daniels played his cards close to his vest on that topic, and he left an impression that would be no comfort at all to Republicans looking for a leader who might appear better suited than Barack Obama to be commander-in-chief. Indeed, as Ponnuru noted in his account of the lunch at National Review Online, Daniels also acknowledged that he’s not ready to debate Obama on foreign policy.

That’s not an unimportant point. Daniels may be among the Americans best qualified to deal with the budget and issues relating to taxes and spending as well his hobbyhorse of education. But while a president is only part of the equation of determining domestic policy, questions of war and peace are primarily the responsibility of the commander-in-chief. Perhaps the main question Daniels must answer is not so much whether he will run but why we should trust someone who acknowledges he is unprepared to discuss these issues with the presidency.

As for his evening with the Arab-American Institute, a group that is hostile to Israel, Daniels’s speech seems to have provided no fodder for either his supporters or detractors. Ironically, Daniels struck something of a neoconservative tone when, in recalling his Syrian grandparents, he expressed hope that the people of that tortured country would step forward to demand freedom as the people of Egypt and Tunisia have done. If Daniels were to develop a message supporting the expansion of democracy abroad (which would fit nicely with his belief in economic freedom at home) that might be the start of a foreign policy. In the mean time, Daniels’s candidacy is clearly a work in progress.


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