Mitch Daniels is the man of the moment—he’s been selected to respond to Barack Obama’s State Of The Union address, which essentially means that he’s about to kiss any sort of rising star status goodbye if history is any guide. And it should be: Daniels is soft-spoken and not terribly magnetic, and my hunch is that the Republicans devoutly wishing he’d gotten in will not be wishing it this time tomorrow. SOTU responses are a lose-lose situation, the only decent ones in recent years were (1) the one given by Sen. Jim Webb in 2007, which was packed with gravitas, toughness, and dignity, and (2) the one given by Gov. Bob McDonnell last year, which ramped up the cheesy atmospherics (cheering crowds, speaker walking down the aisle and shaking hands) to turn the whole thing into an ersatz State Of The Union, but which somehow worked because it turned the whole thing into a joke that McDonnell was entirely in on. It was actually kind of amazing to watch. Daniels, though, will likely shoot for the first and see his buzz evaporate faster than Bobby Jindal’s did, and let’s not forget that then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’s 2008 address arguably killed her prospects of landing a VP nod with her lifeless speech. I’m not sure why they didn’t give this year’s to Chris Christie, who at least has shown himself to have a strong personality, which is the key ingredient here (and is the subtle connecting thread between Webb and McDonnell that led to their speeches working). Christie can talk, he’s younger and his record in office is much less horrifying than Daniels’s. It’s baffling to me why he wasn’t chosen.

But the weird esteem that Daniels lucked into makes me think of something else. It’s become an article of faith that Daniels not only should have run, but that he’d have done well if he had. Daniel Larison put that notion to rest yesterday. The emerging image of Daniels as a thoughtful, moderate statesman is utterly baffling to me, and is a sign of…something. Let’s do a quick jog down memory lane. During the 1990s, the establishment had plenty of moderate Republicans around to bestow praise upon to show their centrism: George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, Susan Molinari, etc. Then the 2000s came around, and suddenly those ranks were severely depleted. Dubya was moderate in some respects, but the establishment was always ambivalent about the guy, simultaneously portraying him as a real ‘merikan and a drunk dolt, and later simultaneously as a True Hero and an incompetent dolt. He never hit the sweet spot for them, so John McCain became their favorite Republican. This made some sense since McCain actually was moderate during this time, opposing the Bush Tax Cuts and so forth. Yes, he supported the Iraq War, but so did every Republican aside from Lincoln Chafee (who, ironically, was booted out in 2006 thanks to public scorn about the Iraq War). But being an iconoclast (and likely an actual Vice President under Kerry had he accepted) simply wasn’t enough for him, he wanted to be president and thus made peace with Bush. From then until now, the centrist establishment’s love for the guy has slowly but steadily dwindled—sure, he still gets on the Sunday shows all the time, but nobody talks about him in elevated terms anymore. Gone forever are the days of the Bipartisan Maverick Centrist War Hero with Courage—these days he’s indulged mostly with vague embarrassment, sort of like Joe Biden without the likability (and with much less knowledge about foreign policy).

This, of course, has left a vacuum for the establishment. Who’s going to be the next maverick, unorthodox Republican for them all to unite around and elevate into a national hero? It’s an open question. Paul Ryan looked certain to be that figure for a time, but the push didn’t work. Too partisan, too bitter, too beholden to wingnut influences, and ultimately while the D.C. crowd loved the idea of a Medicare shredder as a transpartisan hero, the public shockingly refused to go along with it. Chris Christie is the obvious contender for the role, and might well get it, but his style is a hard sell to people outside Jersey. Which leaves us with Mitch Daniels, in many ways the most bizarre figure in this story. Daniels has gotten a lot of mainstream credibility, even though he’s not demonstrably moderate on much of anything. As Kay explains here, he’s a reliable big business crony on the environment, labor rights, taxes, and just about anything else you can name domestically. On foreign policy, he buys into the most dubious assumptions of Fox/Rush/Drudgedom, repeating silly rumors about Obama’s nonexistent apology tour. Daniels does refrain from angry yelling and does present a thoughtful mien, I’ll admit. But it’s either a sign of Daniels’s media savvy that he’s been able to become a “moderate” despite not being moderate in any visible way, or it shows the establishment’s desperation in trying to find a non-horrible Republican that they’ve puffed up someone who gives them very little moderation at all. Or both! Of course, the centrist establishment loves “civility,” which Daniels has I suppose, but this has nothing to do with moderation. McCain during the early aughts was never a civil figure and Christie certainly isn’t. Both are much more moderate than Daniels. Perhaps the establishment has conflated centrism and civility (wouldn’t be the first time!), but someone should tell them that the current state of the Republican Party is such that they can have someone who’s quiet or they can have someone who’s moderate. But today’s Republican Party isn’t going to elevate someone who’s both.

In any event, it’s not going to matter, as Daniels isn’t noted for being an electrifying speaker or much of a master of atmospherics, and can be counted on to give a dull, low-energy Republican speech tonight that will quickly lower the heat on his star. I give it a 95% chance of happening.

As always, this song asks pertinent questions:

  1. […] 8:16 p.m. -- Will the SotU destory Mitch Daniels as a fantasy candidate? Possibly: […]

  2. Metavirus says:

    just like ann coulter’s appeal or holiday fruitcake, giving official responses to the SOTU is just one of those things i will never understand. there is no thinking person’s frame of reference in which i can put myself where watching a SOTU response doesn’t come off as petulant and tone-deaf. why anyone would sign up to do one is beyond me.

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