Restor­ing an over­taxed state

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

Mitch Daniels, elected gov­er­nor of In­di­ana in 2004 and re-elected in 2008 af­ter pre­vi­ously serv­ing as Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush’s di­rec­tor of the Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Bud­get and as a se­nior aide to Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan, has been called “Amer­ica’s best gov­er­nor” and “the most pres­i­den­tial man in Amer­ica.”

And un­til he took him­self out the cur­rent lineup in May for fam­ily rea­sons, he was the pre­ferred pres­i­den­tial choice of many Repub­li­cans. But the pres­i­den­tial ques­tion is now moot (although just down the line there’ll be a vice pres­i­den­tial choice). This book, per­haps orig­i­nally in­tended to but­tress a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, will be read pri­mar­ily as an ac­count of how one gov­er­nor, through the ap­pli­ca­tion of ba­sic con­ser­va­tive prin­ci­ples, re­stored an over­reg­u­lated and over­taxed state run­ning in the red to eco­nomic good health — and did so while sur­round­ing states were sink­ing into re­ces­sion.

To be sure, his dis­cus­sion is not lim­ited to In­di­ana is­sues, and his com­ments on So­cial Se­cu­rity will at­tract at­ten­tion. “For seventy years,” he writes, “Amer­i­cans were mis­led to be­lieve that they had been putting aside money for their own re­tire­ment. . . . This mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion has been aptly named ‘the no­ble lie.’ . . . As is now slowly be­com­ing un­der­stood, there never was any­thing in the trust funds, just a grow­ing moun­tain of obli­ga­tions. . . . This whole setup is enough to give Mr. Ponzi a bad name — or a le­git­i­mate job. If old Carlo were around to­day, he’d have made an ideal So­cial Se­cu­rity com­mis­sioner.”

But cam­paign is­sues aside, it’s as a gov­er­nor that he’s made his mark and about which he writes most com­pellingly.

“All the words here are my own,” he as­sures us, “and I some­times il­lus­trate a point with a fact or anec­dote drawn from my per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence as gov­er­nor of In­di­ana. But . . . telling peo­ple about your home state is like show­ing peo­ple your home movies: The vis­i­tors trapped on the couch are only pre­tend­ing to be in­ter­ested.”

Nev­er­the­less, those ex­pe­ri­ences and ac­com­plish­ments have at­tracted national at­ten­tion, and the home movies are well worth watch­ing. As colum­nist David Broder put it, “His style is to be down-home, but his record of ac­com­plish­ment is daz­zling.” And New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie calls him “the thought leader among to­day’s gov­er­nors and a real role model for me in New Jersey.”

At the end of his first term as gov­er­nor of In­di­ana, Mr. Daniels bal­anced the bud­get, turn­ing what had been a $700 mil­lion short­fall into a bil­lion-plus-dol­lar sur­plus. Over­all debt was re­duced by 40 per­cent, and In­di­ana was given its first AAA credit rat­ing ever. In­di­ana, Mr. Daniels writes, “was one of the few states . . . to nav­i­gate the re­ces­sion with­out rais­ing taxes of any kind.” In the process, and to the an­noy­ance of tax-happy neigh­bor­ing states, In­di­ana’s once-unattrac­tive busi­ness cli­mate has be­come one of the strong­est for pri­vate-sec­tor job growth.

To­day, In­di­ana’s public­sec­tor pay­roll is the small­est per capita in the na­tion, and Mr. Daniels serves as a model for states such as Wis­con­sin that are fight­ing to bring pub­lic pay­rolls un­der con­trol.

At the same time, he points out, gov­ern­men­tal ser­vices have im­proved sig­nif­i­cantly. Even In­di­ana’s Bureau of Mo­tor Ve­hi­cles, once a model of dys­func­tional bureau­cracy, is now rated the best in the coun­try.

The gov­er­nor is known for his trav­els through In­di­ana, sel­dom stop­ping at mo­tels, choos­ing in­stead to stay with “a fam­ily with a spare bed­room or just a free pull-out couch will­ing to put me up for the night.” He en­joys talk­ing to peo­ple with no par­tic­u­lar ide­ol­ogy in their homes, peo­ple who “are look­ing for work­able so­lu­tions to press­ing prob­lems af­fect­ing their fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties.”

The book’s ti­tle comes from the an­swer, at­trib­uted to Ben­jamin Franklin, to a ques­tion about what sort of govern­ment had been cre­ated at the Con­sti­tu­tional Con­ven­tion: “A repub­lic,” Franklin replied, “if you can keep it.” It can be kept, Mr. Daniels writes, “by trust­ing Amer­i­cans” and de­vis­ing pro­grams that speak di­rectly to their con­cerns.

Mitch Daniels doesn’t ra­di­ate the su­per­fi­cial charisma that seems in­creas­ingly de­manded of our politi­cians.

But as Ge­orge F. Will puts it in his fore­word to this book, “From ed­u­ca­tion to in­fra­struc­ture, his In­di­ana ac­com­plish­ments have given him some­thing rare in con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics: the charisma of com­pe­tence.”

Dur­ing his sec­ond term, Mr. Daniels tells us, a reporter asked him how he’d turned things around. “ ‘Pre­pare to be daz­zled,’ I said. ‘We spent less than we took in.’ ”

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speech­writer, is co-author of “Strictly Right: Wil­liam F. Buck­ley Jr. and the Amer­i­can Con­ser­va­tive Move­ment” (Wi­ley, 2007).

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