Mitch Daniels: A Behind-The-Scenes Player Emerges

May 2, 2011
Originally published on May 3, 2011 6:42 pm

There are at least a dozen Republicans considering a run for the White House in 2012. As part of a series, NPR is profiling some of them to find out what first sparked their interest in politics.

When asked how he got started in politics, Mitch Daniels has to stop and think.

"Hard to tell," he says. "I did not come from a political family. [But] I did go to Boys State ... so maybe that was one of the starting points."

As his sister Deborah Daniels recalls, in the summer of 1966, instead of running for governor of Indiana Boys State, the mock political convention for high school student leaders, he chose the role of teenage political consultant.

"There's a fellow playing the piano one evening, and his name was Terry Lester. Mitch looked across the room and said, 'That guy looks like a governor, let's pick him as our candidate.' So they talked him into running, and Mitch developed the strategy — they had a convention and everything," she says. "And Terry won."

Lester went on to become an actor on soap operas and died in 2003. Daniels stayed in politics — and he stayed behind the scenes.

He ran Richard Lugar's Senate office and all his campaigns; worked in the Reagan and George W. Bush White Houses; and ran the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Indiana.

Daniels was drawn to public service — but not to elected office.

"This was something I was interested in, but [it] wasn't an obsession with me," he says. "And I was never at all obsessed with holding public office myself."

The Reluctant Candidate

Presenting yourself as a reluctant candidate might be good politics, but in his case, say Daniels' former colleagues, it has the added benefit of being true. Republican strategist Ed Rollins says Daniels is a guy with a big brain, not a big ego.

"I don't think he's a guy who's looked in a mirror every day for the last 10 years or 20 years and said, 'There's the next president of the United States,' " says Rollins, who hired Daniels to work as the political director in the Reagan White House.

"I'll tell you a story about Mitch that tells you a lot about him," Rollins adds. "When Quayle was named vice president in '88, Mitch was offered the vacant Senate seat, and I said, 'Mitch, this was every guy's dream. You get to be a U.S. senator. You don't have to run for it.' And he said, 'Ed, I've got a big family. I gotta go make some money.' "

And he did, making millions as an executive at Eli Lily. In 2001, Daniels came back to Washington as George W. Bush's budget director. Then, in 2004, he made the leap, becoming a candidate himself.

His sister Deborah says he ran a 21st century-style retail campaign, meeting with small groups of people in small towns across the state. "They recorded it, and they created kind of a reality TV show [that] they called Mitch TV."

On Mitch TV, Daniels comes off as charming, but a little awkward. He looks like Woody Allen's Hoosier cousin — short (5'7") and balding, with a combover. He doesn't have the kind of personality that fills a room, or for that matter, a campaign bus, which is where a lot of Mitch TV is filmed.

"First thing you need to know about this, is it wasn't my idea," he says in one episode. "I am the one who said that if I was gonna become a candidate for public office, I wanted to do things very differently — spend all my time on the road with the people of Indiana."

Mostly, he met people who had no idea who he was.

'Do What It Takes'

If he runs for president, Daniels will run on his record in Indiana, which has hit most of the sweet spots for Republican primary voters. He put an end to collective bargaining for public sector workers, expanded school vouchers, and after suggesting conservatives call a truce on social issues, he signed a bill that defunded Planned Parenthood.

Most importantly, he turned a budget deficit into a surplus.

Fiscal responsibility fits right in to Daniels' reputation as a proud skinflint. As a Capitol Hill staffer, he once fished quarters out of the toilet of a local bar just to prove how cheap he could be. And then, says Deborah Daniels, there's the golf story.

"He didn't take up golf until maybe he was 45 or 50 years old," she says. "And finally, his friends convinced him that he ought to try to play golf and see if he liked it. So he showed up, and he had clubs that he had probably borrowed, and he didn't want to pay $5 for a golf glove, so he brought a gardening glove. And he said, 'Well, I don't know if I'm going to like it, so why should I spend the money for the glove?' "

More than any other potential Republican candidate, Daniels has focused on the debt and the deficit. He calls it the new red menace — a tidal wave of red ink. But he's also challenged Republican orthodoxy by saying Republicans have to be ready to compromise, and that everything should be on the table, including taxes.

"If you believe as I do that this is a republic-threatening issue, that we cannot remain either prosperous or influential in the world if we go broke, and that the arithmetic — forget philosophy for a minute — if the arithmetic says that's where we're headed," he says, "then I think that leads any patriotic citizen to the conclusion that you will do what it takes."

Now, Daniels has to decide if he's willing to do what it takes to run for president. On Tuesday, he said he'd talked to former President George W. Bush about it — he also said that no sane person would like to run.

But although he's been reluctant to run, Daniels has promised that he would not be a reluctant candidate. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit