Tom Marr is a conservative radio talk show host from Baltimore. While driving yesterday I listened to Marr, who was substituting for a national talk host. In the course of the program Marr said that Governor Mitch Daniels was a “fake” conservative. (So too, he added with certainty, is Governor Chris Christie.) Marr didn’t simply disagree with Daniels; he was dripping with contempt for him. At one point Marr asked “Did Ronald Reagan ever ask for a ‘truce’ on social issues, Governor Daniels?” (I’m citing his words from memory rather than from a transcript.)
Let’s see if we can sort through some of this, starting with the comparison to Reagan, the greatest political conservative we have ever known.
As it happens, as governor Reagan signed into law (a) permissive abortion legislation (which he later regretted) and (b) the first no-fault divorce law in the nation. Daniels, on the other hand, signed into law a measure imposing some of the nation’s tightest restrictions on abortions and made Indiana the first state to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood. He has a strong pro-life record. And Daniels’s education reform package is perhaps the most conservative and comprehensive any governor has ever put forward.
My point here isn’t that Daniels is the obvious person conservatives should support for president, in the event he decides to run. He may not be. At this stage it’s impossible to know which candidates will acquit themselves well and which will not. That’s what primaries are for.
The observations I want to make are separate and apart from the merits of a Daniels candidacy, and it starts with this one. The very purity test that Marr wants to impose on Daniels would have disqualified Reagan. That fact alone should give a moment’s pause to Marr and others who think like him.
The reality is that men and women who have faced the burdens of governing in a complicated political realm inhabited by profoundly different people of profoundly different political views—as Reagan, Daniels, and Christie have, among others—will make mistakes from time to time. Over the course of their public lives they may utter remarks that are awkward and even sound dumb upon reflection. And they will stoop to compromises that aren’t ideal, even from their own perspective.
To return to Reagan once again: he raised taxes several times as president, including what at the time was the largest tax increase in American history. Does that historical fact disqualify Reagan from being a great conservative or a great president? Of course not. His overall record on taxes was fantastic. So was his economic stewardship in general. Reagan should be taken in the totality of his acts. And so should the rest of us.
My concern is that conservatives, at least the variety that Marr represents, become increasingly anti-empirical and even anti-intellectual. In judging a candidate they subordinate, or almost entirely overlook or even misrepresent, the substantive record of public officials in favor of the style they prefer, which is fierce, confrontational, in-your-face.
That certainly isn’t the style of Daniels. Nor was it, I might add, the Reagan style. He was a passionate and articulate advocate for conservatism. His words packed a powerful wallop, particularly in his earlier days. (It’s rarely commented upon, but the Reagan who campaigned for president in 1980 was in some respects different, and I think better and more effective, than the man who campaigned for Barry Goldwater in 1964.) Yet Reagan was never belittling and belligerent. He was, in fact, a man of impressive grace and remarkably free of rancor. He combined tough-mindedness with likability. And he used to tell his aides to remember that his political opponents were not his (or their) enemies.
If some conservatives are longing for candidates to adopt the style of Donald Trump or Sarah Palin (especially the thin-skinned Palin described by John yesterday)—if they believe that is the way to win over a majority of the American people—they are free to make their case. They may be smarter about politics than I am. But it is quite a different thing to allege that Daniels is a “fake” conservative when he has amassed one of the most impressive conservative governing records in the nation.
It is an oddly self-destructive impulse for a conservative radio talk show host like Marr to seek an auto-da-fé against some of the finest conservative governors in America. If that attitude spreads far and wide—if Tom Marr’s cast of mind were ever to become commonplace—then Barack Obama will be reelected and conservatism (if not the nation) will massively contract.