Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, in some ways, might be the best candidate the Republicans have to challenge Barack Obama in 2012. Well, potentially, anyway, citing “family reasons,” Daniels has decided not to challenge Obama.
The conventional wisdom is that when a politician does something for “family reasons” he isn’t being candid about the real reason for his (or her) actions. I see an element of truth to that here. The candid reason Daniels is not challenging Obama, I think, is that Obama is looking pretty strong right about now and Daniels thinks that his odds of winning are not good.
What’s that you say? Obama is looking “strong”? With such a soft economy? With inconclusive wars going on? Sure, I think so. What matters on the economy is the delta of the GDP, and the delta of unemployment, not the raw numbers. The GDP is rising. Unemployment is falling. Not by much, and the numbers are still far from where we want them to be. But Obama can argue that his policies are having a positive effect because of the recent movement of those numbers. As for the wars, Libya seems to have been nearly forgotten despite the intense bungling of its early days and its as-yet-indeterminate mission; Afghanistan is also for some reason low on the public’s radar screen; and we are (sort of) pulling out of Iraq, albeit not as early as Obama promised in his first campaign but no one cares about what he promised in the first campaign anyway.
That, of course, is a look at the merits of an Obama re-election bid. The merits, as I so often advise my clients, are at best only part of what matters. Money matters more than merit. Obama has a fundraising machine like no one has ever seen before. Daniels is probably most afraid of what that kind of money will do, of the advantage that Obama’s money will give. Add that to Obama’s inherent charisma and eloquence, his ability to make the vapid and insubstantial sound specific and emotionally uplifting, and then throw in the advantages of being the incumbent, and you’ve got yourself a daunting adversary for the election campaign. Maybe it’s better to wait until 2016.
Then again, maybe Daniels is also sincere about his family. Running for President, and worse yet being President, would be a major disruption on family life, in a way that being the Governor of a mid-sized state is not. Daniels and his family have already felt substantial pressure from the demands of his political career — a lot of time with Dad away from the rest of the family, and a lot of public scrutiny and pressure to maintain appearances of normalcy and good behavior, at minimum. Increase that pressure tenfold and yes, it’s easy to see how one might not want to run at all. Good for Daniels if he is sincere about balancing his career with providing happiness for his family.
But I tend to side with the conventional wisdom. Daniels and his family have already decided to tolerate that pressure by virtue of Daniels running for Governor of his state. And there isn’t a politician in the country, from a newly-elected member of a City Council to a junior member of a school board, who doesn’t have a tiny part of them that wants to take up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and can just see it happening. At Daniels’ level, he has been treated to the flattery of some serious names and big media saying that it could actually happen, and relatively soon. That’s a big stroke to the ego, and nearly every politician out there, by virtue of what it takes psychologically to play the game of politics in the first place, really gets a charge from that kind of ego stroke.
I hate to be cynical about this. (Well, actually, that’s not true at all, I kind of enjoy it.) But I’m convinced that any politician who thinks, whether realistically or not, that he or she has a shot at the White House will want to take that shot. Not taking that shot is a matter of political calculation rather than personal desire, and by the time a politician gets to the point that the national media is discussing the candidacy, family considerations are secondary. “Family reasons” are a tissue of an excuse, but a tissue that is, by social convention, not subject to a direct challenge. It’s up to us to look deeper, and it isn’t hard to look deeper and see the real reason: Daniels isn’t running because he doesn’t think he can win. After all, Haley Barbour made the same calculation and came to the same conclusion.