In a very discouraging piece of news yesterday morning, Mitch Daniels' family torpedoed his presidential candidacy before it ever got off the ground.
Daniels would have been both the most conservative and the most electable candidate in the Republican field. We've written glowingly about his six-plus year record transforming Indiana into one of the most business-friendly states in the union -- as well as the most fiscally solvent. Not only is the best candidate now out of the running, but the quality of the debate will be markedly worse because of it. Daniels is a serious man. While fiercely principled, he doesn't alienate moderates and independents with foolish name-calling. He doesn't shift in the wind like Romney, doesn't pander like Palin, doesn't demagogue like Gingrich and doesn't stake out put-on hawkish positions that make him look silly like Pawlenty. He is a real adult, a real conservative and has serious intellectual gravitas.
Now that Daniels is out, I frankly have no idea who I will vote for. Gary Johnson would be a tremendous standard-bearer for what I want the GOP to morph into, but his libertarianism won't play well in either Iowa or South Carolina, and I refuse to waste my vote on a candidate who doesn't have a serious chance at the nomination. To that end, I suspect I will half-heartedly pull the lever for whichever candidate emerges as the electable alternative to Romney. This probably means either Jon Huntsman or Pawlenty. I have great reticence supporting Pawlenty because of his foolish statements on Libya, his support for waterboarding and his stated refusal to cut a dime from the Pentagon's budget. These are serious issues, and Pawlenty's sudden hawkish stands on each -- that more closely resemble reflexive verbal diarrhea than coherently constructed policy statements -- suggest to me that he hasn't studied these issues very closely. The more Pawlenty talks, the more he sounds like a neoconservative trying to pander to a conservative base that -- at least on foreign policy issues -- he doesn't seem to understand very well.
Huntsman, on the other hand, will no doubt be tarred for his service in the Obama administration and his ideological support for cap and trade. He is making a trip to Kennebunkport for a "kiss the ring" session with President George H.W. Bush, and with Daniels out of the running, to make his case for access to the expansive Bush support network. Huntsman's record as governor of Utah, while not quite as sterling as Daniels', is still impressive, and he seems on the surface to be a fine man to represent the party. My fear is that his affiliation with Obama will cause him deep trouble in Iowa and South Carolina.
It is difficult to overstate how discouraging Daniels' decision is for the Republican Party. Without his measured, affable, wonkish presence, the Republican debates could turn out to be unwatchable train wrecks. He would have been an outstanding president, perhaps the one prospective candidate whose record demonstrates an ability to tackle our massive fiscal crises. It seemed like a perfect marriage of man and moment, and the fact that Daniels has chosen not to pursue it is unspeakably disappointing.