Mitch Daniels reflects on progress in limiting government, without making it inert

Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels sat this week with two Oklahoma reporters for a substantive interview looking back at nearly seven consequential years as chief executive of the Hoosier State. 

He told CapitolBeatOK the “hardest part, or slowest part” of the steady transformation of the state government he has led since taking office in 2007 “was to build a culture of economy all the way through government. It wasn’t that hard just to put up with the usual political noise and to pass budgets that were tight and clean, and to secure the power, on my own hook, to withhold spending where it wasn’t necessary. Once we secured those things, we were able to make a lot of huge changes.

“The harder part was to go more deeply, and to get everybody in on the act. I think we are gaining on that. In our government, you get paid more if you do a good job. And, the best way to do a good job is to find a way to stretch tax dollars and find a way to save them.”

Daniels said that involvement of government employees in the reform process has been an important aspect of the progress that has been made, including use of “spot bonuses” to reward good work or demonstrated savings.

Many have encouraged Daniels to seek the presidency, but he has consistently demurred, without the drama that has accompanied the decisions of some other non-candidates. Despite some news reports that many Republican activists are disenchanted with the present field of candidates, Daniels hinted otherwise, and said he is hopeful the Republican nominee next year will run strongly.

He told CapitolBeatOK, “The first thing is that the president is in real trouble. He has taken a bad situation in the economy, and made it decidedly worse. So, I think it is going to be a very competitive race. I don’t see the economy improving, although I certainly hope that it does. There is unfortunately a good chance that it will not improve.”

Indiana, despite its comparative strengths, faces one major economic challenge, as Daniels reflected: “Our unemployment rate, without a doubt. We are below the national average, and are at the best in the region, but the percentages are awful. This frustrates our people because Indiana has steadily climbed to the top or near the top of the stack, the top tier in terms of states in which to do business. 

“It’s sort of like you’re the prettiest girl at the party, but finding someone to dance with is very frustrating.”

In Tulsa for the Liberty Gala hosted by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, Daniels said he brought a message of hope for conservatives. He had intended to give “a broad brush” of a book he has written, but after talking with OCPA officials he decided to “brutally synopsize” the book, “and then go into how we approach the problems of government, give more particulars or examples of how we have implemented these policies. Organizers of the dinner told me this was one audience that would relate to that.”

He laughed and said, “That is kind of interesting to me, because I think it’s a little like showing people you don’t know well your old home movies. But my friends at OCPA insist people here really want to know how we went from bankruptcy to solvency. … I do believe we have transformed government and made it better. I like to tell that story.”

Discussing his years of governing, Daniels reflected, “We are working on one of the biggest infrastructure improvement programs in the country. When I first came in, critics said it was as if we were ‘Hurricane Mitch’. But the initial moves were intended to get control of the structural deficit and control spending, then move forward. 

“The infrastructure program we’ve got now may be the biggest such program in the country, but nonetheless it was an all-Republican vote, with the Democrats opposing us in the Legislature.”

A Tulsa World reporter asked Daniels about tensions between “Tea Party” activists and others in the Grand Old Party. Commenting from a position of strength, as arguably the most successful governor in America during the depths of the Great Recession, Daniels said:

“What I’ve tried to bring to the discussion is that we Republicans should be for limited government, but not inert government. There’s a little more to that, too: A cheerful attitude, a belief that things can in fact be made better with good policies, is helpful in the political and policy arena. I think it is important not to let a suspicion of big government morph into contempt for all government.”