Mitch Daniels did not come to Baltimore on Tuesday to announce he was running for president, but the governor of Indiana also did not come to the Pikesville Hilton to say he wasn’t running for president.
“I’m not a candidate for anything yet,” Daniels told a small audience as he accepted the Governor Reagan Award from the Harbour League, a four-year-old Baltimore-based organization of free-market conservatives, which some in the audience of about 60 had never heard of before the event.
The governor said he was curious when he heard of the group and its founder, Eli Gold, who was “not to be deterred by the difficult politics of this state.”
Many in the small crowd were curious about Daniels too, and had first-hand experience of the difficult politics in Democratic Maryland. They included Dick Hug, ex-Gov. Bob Ehrlich’s chief fundraiser; Ehrlich’s primary challenger Brian Murphy; Ellen Sauerbrey, who came close to being elected governor in 1994; former congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley; and Congressman Andy Harris.
Daniels is in a way an anti-candidate. Slight of build, balding, plain spoken, with little rhetorical flourish, he has one of the deepest resumes of any of the Republicans mentioned as presidential contenders. He was a U.S. Senate staffer, an adviser to President Reagan, budget director for President George W. Bush, president of a pharmaceuticals division, and CEO of the Hudson Institute think tank. Hudson’s current president is a member of the Harbour League board, and helped Gold get Daniels to Baltimore.
Gold asked Daniels to recount his successes as Indiana governor, something Daniels said he is usually reluctant to do to an out-of-state audience. “It’s like showing them your home movies,” Daniels said.
Daniels’ reputation is built on his fiscally conservative policies that pulled Indiana out of deficits without tax increases, cut the size of government, and leased the state turnpike to a private company to gain $4 billion for other transportation projects. Overall, he reduced the size of government so that Indiana now has the lowest number of employees per capita in the nation.
“You’ll be amazed how much government you’ll never miss,” Daniels said.
He also eliminated collective bargaining for public employees as soon as he took office, and claimed 92% of state workers stopped paying union dues not long after that.
And he did all this without raising taxes except one – the tobacco tax. Unlike Maryland, he used the tobacco money not to expand Medicaid eligibility, but to help create health savings accounts for low-income people to buy private care.
His most recent achievement was what he called a “top-to-bottom transformation of public education in the state” that passed the just-ended session of the Indiana Legislature. Its major provisions include basing all teacher licensing, evaluation, and pay on student performance. It also provides for expansion of charter schools, easy transfer out of non-performing schools, and what he called “the largest voucher program in America.”
Daniels gave an extended version of his Baltimore presentation on education at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington on Wednesday. Here is a link to a video of that talk. UPDATE (Dana Milbank at the Washington Post did a column on the speech, as did Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times. Education Week, the folks who have rated Maryland schools tops three years in a row, also blogged on the AEI speech.)
He also praised the education initiatives from the Obama administration as moving in the right direction. “This administration is pretty good on education,” he said.
But unlike the Obama folks, Daniels said, “we believe in government that is limited but active.”
He conceded he had no real foreign policy of his own, but said it is more important for the United States to clean up its domestic fiscal mess. “We will have to show a mastery of our economic fate,” Daniels said.
Daniels is very different in style and substance from Gov. Martin O’Malley, but they do share one thing in common. In 2008, Governing magazine named Daniels its “Public Official of the Year;” a year later, O’Malley got the cover story honors.
Daniels, who spoke for more than a hour — including 35 minutes of questions — was clear he didn’t want to “prescribe” any of these policies for Maryland, but they were warmly received by the crowd.
“He’s the real thing,” said Sauerbrey.
Murphy said Daniels was not trying to say something new, but was embracing time-tested philosophies of governance.
Former state Sen. Marty Madden said Daniels struck him as Truman-esque.
Gold said, “Our country would be a lot better off if we had 20 more Mitch Daniels.”
But when asked about the South Carolina primary, the key fourth stop on the road to the GOP nomination, Daniels admitted he didn’t know much about it all, and conceded he hadn’t given it much thought. He said he would have to talk more with his wife before he makes a decision, which he promised to do after the legislature was over.