A Prime-Time Test-Drive for Mitch Daniels, the GOP’s Great Vanilla Hope

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The official Republican response to the president's State of the Union address is always carefully monitored by the political class, even as most sane Americans have contentedly or disgustedly switched channels as soon as POTUS has finally shut his trap. But this year's reply was even more eagerly watched than usual by people in the game, for the man who delivered it, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, has lately become an idée fixe for many conservative panjandrums, who increasingly believe that the two remaining candidates with a plausible chance to claim their party's presidential nomination — Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich — haven't a hope in hell of defeating Barack Obama, and who see a late entry into the race by Daniels as the best hope for averting electoral disaster in the fall.

The talk about Daniels isn't new, of course; the GOP Establishment spent a great deal of time and effort in 2011 importuning him to run. Daniels, after much soul-searching and intense consultations with his (adamantly reluctant) wife, declined to hurl himself into the fray. But his decision to accept the invitation to deliver the Republican SOTU response has rekindled the flame among his ardent fans, suggesting that he might be reconsidering (or at least open to reconsidering). His speech last night was thus seen by some as a kind of nationally televised audition for the job of Republican white knight.
 
How did Daniels do? Well, the speech as written was, from a Republican perspective, quite strong. It began, as few conservative critiques of Obama do, by acknowledging that the president has gotten some things right: OBL, public-school reform, his and Michelle's exemplary family life. Its central thrust of attack was on economic policy, and here it was potent and sane, focusing primarily on Obama's failure to deal with the country's long-term structural deficits and mounting national debt. And though Daniels's claims that the president has engaged in the "constant disparagement of people in business" and "constant efforts to divide us, to curry favor with some Americans by castigating others" are a pile of steaming horseshit, he framed the core debate of the 2012 campaign as squarely, sharply, and effectively as any Republican could: “The President did not cause the economic and fiscal crises that continue in America tonight. But he was elected on a promise to fix them, and he cannot claim that the last three years have made things anything but worse."
 
The problem for Daniels, however, was not with how the speech was written; it was with how it was delivered. "His words were chocolate, his performance vanilla," a prominent Republican strategist opined in e-mail, and that statement, I think, was putting it charitably. His delivery struck me as dour and stilted, the latter of which really came through when he coughed up the handful of lines in the speech that were genuine clunkers ("The late Steve Jobs — what a fitting name he had ..."). And other observers found his overall mien even more disconcerting: "Couldn't the GOP find someone to make their official response who doesn't seem exactly like a serial killer?" tweeted the invaluable Andy Borowitz, followed by, "Shorter Mitch Daniels: 'I want to take you all to a city on the hill and there I will kill and eat you.'"
 
But the collective verdict of the political class on Daniels's speech was strikingly positive. This reflects four things, I think: (a) a rare weighting of substance over style (imagine that!); (b) the relative strength of Daniels to both Gingrich and Romney; (c) the long-running theory among some Republicans that Daniels's short-balding-unpretty-ineloquence make him the perfect contrast candidate to Obama; and (d) the abject eagerness and desperation on the part of virtually everyone involved in the political scene to see the white-knight scenario unfold, for the sheer spectacle of the thing.
 
Could it happen? Yes, it could, though not easily. For a start, at least where Daniels is concerned, the candidate would somehow need to overcome the impediments (in particular, again, the resistance of his wife) that kept him out of the race in the first place. And while there are still plenty of big states where it's still possible for a late-entering candidate to get on the ballot, that candidate, no matter how well he fared in those primaries, would almost certainly not be able to accumulate the 1,144 delegates necessary to secure the nomination outright. Which is to say, we'd be talking about a brokered convention — something that last came close to occurring on the Republican side in 1976.
 
That was a long time ago, I hear you saying, and you're right. But not so long ago as to banish it from the political class's fever dreams — or from the minds of Republican heavyweights who see the other available options as a nightmare in the making. If Gingrich beats Romney in Florida, that will be a hell of a story next Tuesday night. But by Wednesday morning, you'll be hearing as much about Daniels — and Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, and Bobby Jindal — as Newt and Mitt.