You might not have noticed, but there has been a Mitch Daniels boomlet in Republican political circles lately. The governor of Indiana has been mentioned as a possible 2012 contender by a number of well-connected pundits, he's been featured on the cover of National Review, and GOP leaders selected him to give a recent Saturday radio address.
It's a lot of good exposure if you're looking to raise your national profile. But why Daniels? And why now?
"It shows you how slim the pickings are," Daniels told me Wednesday, after he spoke at "Making Conservatism Credible Again," a panel discussion in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Hudson Institute and the Bradley Foundation. Lest anyone read that as a dismissive take on the current Republican leadership, Daniels added, "I think you'll see new sprouts flowering up more quickly than you'd expect."
That's probably not what Republican hopefuls like Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin and others want to hear. But Daniels believes a new crop of potential presidential candidates is on the way — and he insists that he won't be one of them. "I've only ever run for and held one office," says Daniels, who was elected governor in 2004 and re-elected last year. "It's the last one I'm going to hold."
There's no doubt Daniels is an intriguing prospect. A former corporate executive and foundation head, he was George W. Bush's first budget chief, serving from 2001 to 2003. Going home to Indiana, he not only was elected governor on his first try; he won a second term last November by 18 points — at a time when a Democratic presidential candidate won Indiana for the first time in 44 years. In victory, Daniels attracted a lot of Democratic votes, and 20 percent of the African-American vote. He inherited a deficit and turned it into a surplus. And he has a huge job-approval rating — almost 70 percent.
Daniels' stock with the national party began rising as the full extent of last November's damage began to sink in. His reputation has gone up still more as his performance with Indiana's economy continues to shine amid national financial calamity.
Then came May 10, when Daniels gave the commencement speech at Butler University in Indianapolis. Facing graduates born in the late 1980s, Daniels delivered a roundhouse condemnation of the selfishness of the baby-boomer generation and a call for today's young people to live more responsibly than their elders.
"All our lives, it's been all about us," Daniels, who recently turned 60, said of his generation. "We were the 'Me Generation.' We wore T-shirts that said 'If it feels good, do it.' The year of my high-school commencement, a hit song featured the immortal lyric 'Sha-la-la-la-la-la, live for today.'
"As a generation, we did tend to live for today," Daniels continued. "We borrowed and splurged, and we will leave you a staggering pile of bills to pay. It's been a blast; good luck cleaning up after us."
Daniels' words struck the hearts of self-loathing boomers throughout the conservative commentariat. Come 2012, wrote William Kristol, "maybe the nation will be ready to elect a boomer president who disdains his own generation, and urges younger Americans to reject boomer vanities and self-indulgence in the name of freedom and greatness." A contender was born.
So Daniels is hot — well, as hot as a Republican possibility can be at this moment. But press him all you like, and he'll swear he won't run for president. In Washington Wednesday, Daniels described staying out of the race as an almost moral obligation.
"A lot of what we have tried to do in this adventure has been to resolutely live up to our words," Daniels said. "I would like to leave my state a little less cynical than we found it because a group of people came and went and really did what they said. And this is one of those things. I said I was going to serve four years, I'm going to serve four years, do my best at it, and not be on the make for something else, as many people in public life appear to be."
It would be hard to walk away from words like that. But don't be surprised if some Republicans try to talk Mitch Daniels out of his promise.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.