Responsible Rider

Article excerpt

Byline: Andrew Romano

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is small, stiff, and unimposing, So why is he attracting legions of fans? Hint: it's not the motorcycle.

It's lunchtime at frontier Elementary School in Brookston, Ind., and Gov. Mitch Daniels, who's spent the past two hours leading a charity motorcycle ride through the cornfields of central Indiana, has decided, along with 500 of his burliest friends, to park his Harley and grab some food. In the cafeteria, groups of tattooed men in leather vests, skull bandannas, and sleeveless denim jackets mill about, nibbling on limp turkey sandwiches. But Dennis Tyger, a 42-year-old auto repairman with a thick goatee and an impish grin, is too busy plotting his next move to eat. "So I should do it, right?" he asks his tablemates. They nod. Seconds later, Daniels enters the room.

"Here comes our next United States president!" Tyger shouts. At first, Daniels flinches. Ever since telling The Washington Post in February that he "would stay open to the idea" of challenging Barack Obama in 2012, he has had to insist, often several times a day, that he doesn't actually intend to run. His ambivalence seems genuine. "You've seen my schedule," he tells me later, in his broad Midwestern drawl. "I'm not going to Iowa; I'm not going to New Hampshire. I'm turning down every offer." But when the rest of the crowd roars with applause, Daniels can't help but smile. "Listen to that," Tyger says, shaking his head. "I can see him in the White House already."

If you've heard anything about Indiana's very slight, very balding, very unimposing governor--and that's a big if--it's probably just the opposite: that he couldn't possibly win the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, and that even if he did, his chances of defeating Obama in the general election would be close to nil. The reasons, they say, are many. At 5 feet 7 (in boots), Daniels is shorter than Obama's 12-year-old daughter, Malia. His rather uninspiring demeanor--reticent, stiff, and slightly skittish, with darting eyes and long blanks between words--better suits a former director of the Office of Management and Budget, which he happens to be, than a leader of the free world. And his comb-over is borderline delusional. As conservative journalist Andrew Ferguson recently put it, "I see [Daniels] as he strides toward the middle of the stage to shake hands with Obama before the first debate and comes up to the president's navel. Election over."

But while the wags in Washington dismiss him, and while Daniels himself has yet to display any real desire for Obama's job, something unusual seems to be happening, both in Indiana and elsewhere: the Tygers of the world are getting louder. In February, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat dubbed Daniels "America's best governor," and fellow conservatives like Reihan Salam and Yuval Levin--writers who have long insisted that Republicans should avoid the pitfalls of Palin populism as they recalibrate for the 21st century--are equally enthusiastic. "Though it is far too early to know what the world will look like in 2012," Salam has opined, "I can't help but think that a common-sense conservative like Daniels would be the perfect match for Obama."

Part of the reason Daniels is attracting Republican interest is that his record of competence and fiscal restraint represents a refreshing change of pace from George W. Bush's big-government conservatism. After five years in the statehouse, admirers point out, Daniels has managed to lower property taxes by an average of 30 percent; transform a $200 million budget deficit into a $1.3 billion surplus; and insure 45,000 low-income Hoosiers through a budget-neutral combination of health savings accounts and catastrophic coverage. His approval ratings routinely top 65 percent.

The real force behind the Daniels boomlet, however, is timing. For the past two years, Republicans have defined themselves by opposing both Obama's progressivism and Bush's profligacy; the GOP has said no to the stimulus package, no to health-insurance reform, and no to the mounting national debt, without providing much in the way of a positive vision. …