The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is not typically a place where speakers challenge their audiences. CPAC is a three-day pep rally, a conservative Woodstock, a forum for, as Ronald Reagan once said during a speech there, “dancing with them who brung you.” It is a celebration of conservatism, rather than a serious reflection on its future. A slick politician would take the opportunity to pander to the army of conservative organizers and activists that populate the conference, rather than delivering Cassandra-like predictions.
Most of the speakers in attendance at the event followed just that formula. The speeches of Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, and other GOP presidential hopefuls were a simplistic pastiche of conservative shibboleths, declarations in favor of motherhood and apple pie, and second-rate jokes about Democrats, particularly Obama.
There was one man however, who went beyond the cheerleader-ism and easy point scoring that so often characterizes CPAC. Mitch Daniels, the current governor of Indiana, did a rare thing; he spoke truth to power.
His speech topic — the ruinous debt that our country is building up — was perfect for tossing out red meat. However, the message Daniels sent was nothing short of a rebuke to his audience.
“Purity in martyrdom is for suicide bombers. King Pyrrhus is remembered, but his nation disappeared. … I for one have no interest in standing in the wreckage of our Republic saying ‘I told you so’ or ‘You should’ve done it my way.’”
Compromise, Daniels emphasized, was the path forward. Pretending that the problem can be solved by ending earmarks or by eliminating pure waste is dishonest, and worse, does not prepare the public for the changes to come. Military spending, long a sacred cow for Republicans, will have to be surrendered. And finally, the rhetoric used by Republicans needs to change. A give-no-quarter attitude might make for an exciting speech, but it wins over few moderate minds and, in the course of actual governance, is a serious liability. If conservatives took a my-way-or-the-highway approach on an issue as important as the national debt, the benefit of achieving a “perfect” policy would be more than outweighed by the risks of gridlock and no solution.
Mitch Daniels is more than just a courageous speaker. The Office of Management and Budget director-turned-governor has had a decade of experience in trimming budgets while retaining services. As governor, Daniels has brought his state from deficit to surplus even as he pushed Indiana to become the state with the lowest property taxes in the nation and one of the few with a triple-A debt rating. And his no-drama, no-nonsense style of governing produces results without the yelling and protesting that serious reform usually engenders. While his neighbor, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, may relish a public showdown between himself and government worker unions, Daniels ended collective bargaining six years ago without similar fuss.
Daniels is a rare politician, one who understands the scale of the problem that our nation faces, who has the courage to disown ideological purity in return for practical solutions, and who has the competence to not just cut government, but to make it better. He has displayed a level of leadership that the rest of the Republican field has not, and more importantly, has displayed a level of leadership that our own president has failed to provide.
If you believe that our failing finances are the number one problem facing government and believe in a bipartisan approach to governing that eschews rhetoric for real solutions, write to Daniels today and urge him to run for president. He can be reached by e-mail through his website, http://www.in.gov/gov/2631.htm.