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A Nice-Guy Conservative Emerges From Political Self-Exile

The last time a national audience heard from Mitch Daniels on political matters was his 2012 State of the Union response to then-President Barack Obama, a typically writerly speech of his in which he began by arguing it was the “loyal opposition’s” responsibility to “show respect for the presidency and its occupant, to express agreement where it exists.” (Yes, people actually talked like that a decade ago.)

That year, Daniels, the term-limited Indiana governor, had such an inside lane on his party’s nomination that many of his Republican megadonors believed he would run. Instead, he chose to get out of politics altogether. By 2013, he was president of Purdue University, his official off-ramp from politics. Ten years and a political era later, Daniels has refashioned himself into a national leader on higher education reform; he famously held tuition at Purdue at the same price for that same amount of time. Now, his allies are urging him to return to politics — having just formed a PAC for him this week. But Daniels’ more moderate strain of conservatism — he floated the idea of a “truce” on social issues in 2010 — is an artifact of a bygone era of politics. If he were to return to politics, he would do so to a vastly different GOP: One that relishes the very culture wars Daniels once eschewed.

In an exclusive interview with POLITICO Magazine, for the first time in a decade, Daniels dishes on the Trump era, which Republican Senator he most admires, why he thinks JD Vance lost his way, and why he thinks 80 is too old to run for president.

Adam Wren: President Joe Biden recently signed into law the CHIPS Act, authorizing $280 billion in U.S. spending to subsidize computer chip companies and invest in technological research. You’ve spent a career lamenting government spending, but it seems like that kind of spending would benefit the mission of a tech-forward campus such as Purdue.

Mitch Daniels: As somebody who worries about the fiscal condition of the country, the bills that you and even younger generations are going to have dumped on them, I’m always dubious about any new spending. I was able to persuade myself that CHIPS itself was a responsible thing to do, given the centrality of semiconductors, as people say, almost like oil has been. An economy can’t be a world-leading economy without it.

If President Xi decided he didn’t have to conquer Taiwan, if he just simply decided to shut off or blockade it or something, it would be more damaging to this country than almost anything else he could do to us. So, for that reason, and that reason only, I felt it was a responsible thing.

I hope that’s not just a rationalization because some of that money is going to wind up here. [A new $1.8 billion semiconductor plant announced plans to open at Purdue’s Discovery Park in July.] It’s probably the biggest step forward for the Indiana economy since the Honda decision [to move to Indiana in 2006].

Wren: But it does sound like the final version signed into law had some extraneous spending items you’re unhappy with.

Daniels: There always are. This is Washington. Nothing new to say. Washington needs to, at some stage, be thinking very resolutely about spending reductions leading to smaller deficits and ultimately to debt reduction or this country’s going to have a genuine national security and economic crisis. I’ve said it many times. Admiral Michael Mullen said a few years ago the debt is the biggest national security problem worrying him looking out a decade or two or three.

Wren: I rewatched your 2012 State of the Union response to Barack Obama recently. You talked about that debt threat in a way that seemed very imminent, and yet here we are, more than a decade later. Is there a point of no return?

Daniels: Even then, I wasn’t suggesting it was going to happen tomorrow. But I tried to point out on many occasions, this is not a matter of somebody’s computer model speculating that a big problem is going to come, like climate change. This is absolutely certain. It’s mathematical. And it’s gotten so much worse. In the meantime, you say about the “point of no return:” In one sense, we’ve reached it, not in the overall societal sense. I mean, we’re still very fortunate. We’re still the world’s reserve currency. There are other places that have problems too. Right now, we’re the best house in a slum neighborhood.

Wren: Are you worried about the creeping threat of autocracy when you look at the sluggish nature of our institutions to confront big problems? To some, autocracy seems much more efficient.

Daniels: Depends on what you want to be efficient at. Extinguishing individual liberty? Yeah, maybe it’s good at that. Not good at producing great opportunity and prosperity. It’s much more efficient for tyrants. This is really your question: Our system, some believe, is too rigged against autocracy, where it gets paralyzed. What bothers me more is the tribalism. I’ve been fretting about that in public and in commencement addresses for many years now. And it’s not gotten better. Once that sort of poison gets into the culture of a country, it’s not clear that there are words or deeds or individual leaders who can help people move out of it, move back toward a great sense of community and fellowship — national unity.

Wren: You do not talk about Donald Trump. You haven’t mentioned his name publicly in more than a decade. You have said you don’t know him, so you don’t talk about him. But if politics is downstream of culture, what happened in the culture that led to his presidency and to this current moment we find ourselves in?

Daniels: That’s such a central question. I will say this: I think the last presidency — I’m not going to personalize it — I’d say the last presidency contributed to this but didn’t cause it. I think that was a symptom — that shocking outcome of the 2016 presidential election. I was surprised at the outcome.

But to me, it was a symptom. And I think it’s fairly simple: What Lenin would have called the “commanding heights of the economy,” your businesses and places like higher education institutions, have become too detached from the lives and values of a vast number of millions and millions of, I’ll say, average Americans … I’ve got friends of mine who were mortified at the 2016 outcome, people who are passionate members of the Democratic Party who ask me, “How could this happen?” I said, “It’s not complicated. If you look down your nose at someone long enough, one day they will punch you in it.” And I think that’s what happened. I sat there that night — I don’t watch much television — but these national network commentators are talking to each other incredulously. What happened here? Well, these under-educated types, you know, these are non-high school graduates … Disdain is not too strong a word. It was condescending.

I do believe that when you started the question with culture being upstream of politics, you were exactly right. I think the nature of our public discourse has had an effect. Social media is a disaster in this respect, along with declining attention spans. I think that’s where it started.

Wren: You think it’s a relatively recent phenomenon in American politics? I mean, re-watching your State of the Union response, it seems like a different era in American politics. You praise then-President Obama as a family man.

Daniels: It’s very recent. Adam, stick with me: The first time I ran, I wrote a little message, and we used it in the Republican primary. And I said — almost verbatim — “I’ve never run for public office before, and before you vote you should know there’s a couple things I won’t do to win it. I won’t disparage an opponent’s background or character or motives. We’re going to ask for your support based on things we’ll do, not attack another person.“ And for the next eight years, the easiest applause line if I’m giving a speech somewhere is, “We’ve run elections and never made a negative commercial.“ Now that’s not that long ago. I still hope there’s room for people who will tell these mercenaries — which we never used — “Yeah, no. Thank you for your advice, but we’re not going to do it now.“ That’s probably naive. Because the advice from consultants now is, “You can play Mr. Nice Guy, but that will get you beat.“

Wren: Let’s tie those two strands together: What happened in 2016, and then what you describe as the elites sneering at everyday people, as well as the environment of today and negative attacks…

Daniels: That’s your paraphrase. I was careful not to use too many of those kinds of words like ‘elites.’

Wren: Fair. But let’s talk about JD Vance, who was one of those people on television after 2016 explaining average Americans to a national audience. And in Hillbilly Elegy, he mentions you quite prominently, calling you his ‘political hero.’ He’s, objectively, doing those very things you caution against in his Ohio Senate race against Democratic challenger Tim Ryan.

Daniels: It’s interesting you bring him up. I got to know him. He’s on the wall out there (Daniels motions to a photo outside his office). I brought him to campus when his book was hot. I’ve tried to bring all kinds of interesting people here. He and I had some good interactions. But not now for a good while. And so I noticed, as you did, that he veered in a different direction. And I wish I could say he’s the first friend or person that I’ve seen do that, but I could name a couple of others here in the state who I know are responding to political reality as they see it, or who someone persuaded them to see it — you know, you got to do this to win. I’m not in a position to say that that’s wrong. But I think it’s a little regrettable.

Wren: You once called former Indiana state Sen. Jim Banks, who joined the Senate in 2010, around the end of your gubernatorial career, the future of the Republican Party. He’s climbing the ranks of Congressional leadership now, championing the culture wars, and is a Trump acolyte.

Daniels: There’s a little story about that. One of the maiden voyages of our RV was a hog roast up on a farm in northeast Indiana. That was on Jim Banks’ farm. He was the organizer. We probably only overlapped in the legislature a couple years. He was a person of promise and he certainly has been rising ever since.

Wren: Rising at the expense of the values of a Daniels Republican?

Daniels: Now I’m going to take refuge in the fact that I don’t comment on partisan politics these days.

Wren: Indiana’s general assembly passed, and Gov. Eric Holcomb signed into law a near-total ban on abortion recently, becoming the first state to do so in a post-Roe country. Eli Lilly, Cummins and other companies have said they are going to expand elsewhere now. Are you concerned about economic harm to Indiana? Or even declining enrollment at Purdue from would-be out-of-state enrollees?

Daniels: I honestly don’t know. I don’t know.

Wren: In 2010, you were critical of high school teachers using Howard Zinn’s book A People’s History of the United States in K-12 curriculum. Looking back, do you see the roots of the GOP’s current fixation on the so-called “woke curriculum” as far back as then?

Daniels: That whole thing had nothing to do with higher ed or Purdue. I think it’s a completely different thing on this campus. Somebody wants to read him, teach him, that’s fine. Students are older. There’s more than one teacher. There’s more than one book. That’s very different than what you’re peddling to a sixth or seventh or eighth grader, where a teacher’s word is law.

Misrepresentation of American history and American values has permeated much of — not all, but much of — education now for a good long time. And so the people who imbibed that growing up very often are the people who are now teaching, running school boards and so forth. And so I think that this wasn’t unforeseeable, but I do think it’s very unfortunate, and should be pushed back against.

Wren: And when you say “should be pushed back against,” you’re talking about the diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives advanced by school boards in some districts across the country right now as well?

Daniels: I thought we were talking about how our history and civic principles are taught.

Wren: Understood. A town in Michigan recently defunded its public library after trying to get LGBTQ-themed books removed. Are you concerned the GOP is veering too far into anti-intellectualism?

Daniels: That would be unconscionable. Leave the party out of it, because I’m not sure it’s organized by a party. There’s a lot about our K-12 system that needs improvement. And one reason it’s very hard is that the education establishment stays put in place. Parents come and go. So parents have, in many cases, effectively mobilized to give us more choice, give us more quality, give us more safety, and sometimes had some effect, but all too often, their kids either leave the system or graduate, and they go away. And I think that in some of these matters you’re asking about, we’ve seen parents mobilizing. “What are you peddling to my child?” That is citizen activism of the highest order. That has nothing to do with closing libraries.

Wren: As governor, you sought to create a “better sandbox” economically in passing low taxes and de-regulating the state to incentivize companies to build their headquarters here. That approach has come under fire. In the Journal of American Affairs, Aaron Renn writes that that approach “prioritizes the preferences of businesses, or at least a subset of them, over those of its citizens … In practice, Indiana has pandered to low-wage employers and sided with businesses over citizens in many policy disputes.” Some, like Renn and the Indiana Democratic Party, argue that your economic approach has ultimately failed.

Daniels: I find it completely unpersuasive.

Wren: Professor Michael J. Hicks, the Ball State University economist, wrote recently that it’s “been the worst two decades in the state’s economic history, and that prospects for the next two decades are even poorer.” That’s quite an indictment of your approach. Indiana’s personal per capita incomes have declined.

Daniels: Professor Hicks generally does good thinking. It’s just totally misguided, and basically, the fundamental flaw is nobody ever said that this “better sandbox” would solve every problem for all time. It was necessary but not sufficient. The right way to look at it is, if you hadn’t done that, we’d be in disastrously worse shape. Ten years ago, I was giving speeches that said “All right, a better tax regime: check. A better litigation regime: check. Better regulation, better infrastructure: We’re now number one in the country every year, it seems like. But until we can check the talent box, we haven’t got this thing solved. And we haven’t checked the talent box. I’m not faulting anybody, but it’s the hardest problem to deal with. But to say the rest of it wasn’t wise, I think is colossally and provably untrue. Critics don’t correct for the cost of living. Your dollar goes a lot further here. And so just simply looking at income levels doesn’t answer the question. Sometimes they don’t correct for disposable income. What matters is how much the family has in its checkbook after they pay their taxes. I think it’s a dead-end argument.

Wren: There don’t seem to be a lot of governors following your model these days — in terms of avoiding the culture wars.

Daniels: Governors of either party have always tended to be more pragmatic and practical. You don’t have a choice. It’s not all about a snappy soundbite. People in Washington think they get off a clever tweet and they had a good day’s work, right? And so I’m not certain that’s changed in a big way.

Wren: When you look across the national landscape at political talent, are there young leaders in America who excite you?

Daniels: [Nebraska Senator] Ben Sasse.

Wren: What about Ben Sasse?

Daniels: He’s thoughtful. He’s in it for the right reasons. I fear that people like that may be discouraged by the difficulties we have and go find something else to do. He speaks for himself. He writes for himself. I always thought that was an important mark of a public servant.

Wren: A lot of pro-impeachment Republicans have been driven from office. What does that mean for the future of public service?

Daniels: I’ll just say it this way: I think this is pretty symmetrical. I think you’re seeing people who have somewhat more moderate or mixed views driven out or taken out on both ends. Look at the left end of the spectrum to people very purposefully going after folks who don’t agree with the most extreme version of today’s left-lane politics. So that’s not good. It’s pretty symmetrical on both sides.

Wren: But do you think the outcomes have been symmetrical? Looking at January 6, for example — the left didn’t storm the Capitol.

Daniels: Well, that was a singular event. Awful and inexcusable. Indefensible. But I think I see people on the other end who have, in different ways — riots, and so forth — behaved in a way that’s inimical to free institutions. It just wasn’t their president who got beat. You can’t imagine a worse assault on institutions than the January thing, but I’m not sure it reflects anything particularly different than I see on the polar-opposite side.

Wren: Closer to home, your friends have circulated your name as a possible 2024 gubernatorial candidate. You’ve said you haven’t thought about it. You’ve said you’re focused on Purdue. But what you haven’t said is “no.”

Daniels: I haven’t said anything. I don’t comment on things I haven’t thought about.

Wren: I’m giving you a chance to think about it right now.

Daniels: [Laughs.] No, I don’t have anything to say about it.

Wren: Will you have an active role in supporting whoever the 2024 Republican presidential candidate is?

Daniels: We talked about how these things have gotten more nasty, toxic, and it’s been comfortable to be able to duck questions the way I’ve been ducking yours. So I don’t know. I don’t have a plan for what’s next. Because you do all your homework, I have not lived all my life around politics. The longest job I ever had was at Eli Lilly. I learned all the most important lessons in the private sector. When we were in public life, I said over and over again that I wasn’t much of a fan of careerists in politics. I’ve resisted it now for 10 years. And so I don’t feel particularly drawn or even obliged to go back into that. I’m not saying “under no circumstances.”

Wren: Can your brand of conservatism still win in the current environment?

Daniels: I don’t know. I’ve been in isolation and quarantine for 10 years. In one way I think about it, maybe I haven’t been infected by the viruses that are running around on both sides.

Wren: You’re a writer — with the Washington Post column and your first book, and you famously write your own speeches. Do you have another book in you when you step down from Purdue?

Daniels: I might. I’ve got a couple of ideas. One would be just sort of a collection of lessons learned. Things like: Don’t let the ball play you. Tilt the table. Aphorisms like that.

Wren: I’ve been told you do at least as many pushups as your age each morning. You’re 73. How many did you do this morning?

Daniels: 101.

Wren: This isn’t a political question because you’ve said you don’t answer those, but a biological one. Is 80 too old to be the president of the United States?

Daniels: I think it probably is. I haven’t been 80, so I can’t say for sure. I know there are people who think it is a very iffy thing. You know, the first president I worked for, Ronald Reagan, his detractors told him he was too old at 69.

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