The benefit of hindsight makes clear how unlikely the whole run for president was.
True, the governor did have things going for him. Even his opponents grant that he’s whip-smart. He’d built a national reputation for finding innovative public policy solutions. He had a large group of political friends, some of whom had first seen his potential as a leader when he was a college student.
There also were liabilities.
The first was that the governor came from a small state, with few electoral votes, which meant he wouldn’t start the quest for the White House with much of a base.
Then there was the personal stuff—the embarrassing drug episode during his Ivy League days.
And, of course, there was his marriage—a complicated but enduring union, the terms of which perhaps only the two spouses understood. There was no way he and his family were going to get through a national campaign without having every closet and corner of their private lives examined.
In spite of all that, Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992 and won.
Facing a somewhat similar set of circumstances 20 years later, Mitch Daniels chose not to try.
Daniels clearly wasn’t willing to have his family members sacrifice their personal autonomy in the way Clinton was—either because the Indiana governor lacked the former president’s driving ambition or, more likely, because Cheri Daniels lacked Hillary Clinton’s driving ambition.
There were other political changes that might have affected the outcome.
Clinton ran for the presidency on economic issues in 1992. Daniels said he wanted to do the same in 2012.
To do that, Clinton had to challenge the extremist, activist base of his party, first by allowing the execution of a brain-damaged Arkansas man with an IQ estimated between 50 and 80 and then by publicly dressing down Sister Souljah and, indirectly, Jesse Jackson for playing the race card.
For Daniels to secure a “truce” on social issues so he could focus on economic issues, he had to make peace with the activist, extremist wing of his party by signing an ill-advised bill stripping Planned Parenthood of funding. For a proud man, signing that bill could not have been easy.
Significant as those differences are, they probably don’t account for the real reason Daniels didn’t run.
I remember talking with Evan Bayh after he had introduced Clinton at a campaign event in 1992. At the time, Clinton and the first George Bush both were under relentless attack—Clinton for being an irresponsible rogue and Bush for being an unfeeling, elitist war-monger.
Bayh said that both portraits were not real. He said that, when he was a boy, Barbara Bush had been one of his baby-sitters and that the Bushes were some of the nicest, most caring people around. The Clintons, Bayh said, were close friends of his and two of the most decent human beings he had met.
I asked Bayh how they endured having their lives and characters reduced to caricatures.
“You put on your armor and you go out to do battle. You don’t let it get to you. You just get through it,” Bayh said.
There are politicians out there who see the ability to strip away one’s feelings as demonstrating toughness. To me, it sounds soul-deadening.
I don’t know if Daniels would have been a great or even a good president. It likely will take at least a generation to determine whether his governorship was a triumph, a disaster or something in between.
What I do know is that he is a serious man—one committed to leading people to confront tough challenges. Win or lose, if he had chosen to run, he would have elevated the national debate.
When serious people such as Mitch Daniels opt not to seek important offices, it’s not hard to figure out who the losers are.
Krull directs Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and hosts the weekly news program “No Limits” on WFYI-FM 90.1. Send comments on this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.