Keeping the Republic
By Steven Martinovich
Along with all the other election season dangers for the general public are the accompanying books written by contenders and pretenders, their acolytes and enemies. It is reprehensible enough that a favoured television program could be pre-empted by a debate featuring pre-programmed answers to cherry-picked questions, but the nation's book stores ceding space to politicians? It would be too much to bear if it occurred any more than every four years. Thank heavens for cable, still the preserve of high end programs about zombies and 1960s serial womanizers and drunks, and book stores that still devote most of their space to romance and spy novels, with barely a glimpse of a finely manicured politician and their earnest agenda for America.
It is into this hostile space that Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels has entered with Keeping the Republic: Saving America by Trusting Americans, though in his defence he decided earlier this year against running for 2012. That may be something that future generations – or at least Republicans – regret because Daniels is one of those rare politicians: You actually believe that he believes what he's saying. Even more incredibly, Daniels has the kind of record that could inspire people to re-evaluate a country's direction and perhaps choose a more responsible future.
These sorts of efforts need a problem and a solution and Daniels has sensibly picked what may be the biggest of the day; America's debt – which he has dubbed the Red Menace. The extraordinary scale of the problem has been covered in these pages many times so I'll refrain from hammering that particular nail in again. Many, of course, have said that the problem is simply insoluble. Americans and their government are addicted to debt and without it the dazzling array of entitlements would come to an end. Trapped with the choice of either turning off the spigot and face electoral defeat or continuing to borrow and court certain national disaster, politicians – and to be fair, the public itself – has consistently chosen to keep the valve open fully.
That fact would depress most but Daniels is not most men. Elected governor of Indiana in 2004, though his public career stretches back to the 1970s, Daniels was faced with a $700 million deficit, infrastructure in dire straits, strong labour movements, bloated government and other problems too numerous to list. A few years later Daniels presides over a state with a $1 billion surplus, infrastructure under repair, a popular cap on property taxes, education reform and other achievements that are, again, too numerous to list. Daniels had what many considered being lunatic ideas about government: its role is not to rule, but be ruled, that it should stick to its core responsibilities and that it should actually spend less money than it took in.
How was Daniels able to achieve his agenda despite this revolutionary manifesto? Daniels argues that if given the information, Americans are actually able to make the right decision most of the time. Instead of rule by an elite – which he dubbed "benevolent betters", Daniels argues that trusting Americans should be government's approach. Politicians, he argues, shouldn't be bound by ideological puritanism, but the ugly reality that's on the ground – because perfect is the enemy of good. As one reads through Keeping the Republic one is constantly struck by the fact that this Daniels fellow seems like a very reasonable man. It's amazing he's lasted this long in government.
As Keeping the Republic documents, his record includes some big changes in Indiana. Facing heavy opposition from Democrats and their allies, Daniels often took his case to the public in order to generate grassroots support. Laying out his case, Daniels was able to time and time again build popular support for some controversial measures, including introducing choice to health care plans for public employees in order to cut costs or cutting the size of the public sector – both of which contested by the left and unions. When informed of the importance of the state's debt and the measures needed to attack it, the public generally supported Daniels even if it meant some short-term pain. Today, it's arguable that Indiana is one of the best governed states in the union.
A cynic would argue – and not entirely unjustifiably – that trusting Americans is precisely what got them into the mess they're in. After all, Americans have been confronted with the decision of voting to strip mine their nation's finances for decades and they've generally chosen to do so out of compassion or self-interest. Cynics, however, rarely accomplish much outside of occasionally being clever. It is the optimist, like Daniels, which seem to do the most good. So while Keeping the Republic is hardly the first of its kind, it's rare with its believable optimism. That believability is largely due to Daniels' record in actually getting things done in the face of opposition. Such a man would make the election season a little more bearable.
Steven Martinovich is the founder and editor of Enter Stage Right.
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