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Dream a Little Dream of Gov. Mitch Daniels

I despaired again on State of the Union night that Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels isn’t running for the Republican presidential nomination.

His response to President Barack Obama was the opposite of what we’re seeing in the Roman circuses of GOP debates — it was dignified, unbombastic and focused on the crucial issues that face the country and separate Republicans from Democrats.

Daniels also is more experienced, across the board, than anyone running. He has as strong a background in national government as former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) or former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (and vastly more than former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney), having been a Senate aide and a White House budget director.

As a former top executive of Eli Lilly, he has what Gingrich and Santorum lack — experience actually running something — and he’s been a successful governor for two terms, not in-and-out like Romney.

Unlike Romney, there would be no question among Republicans that he’s a committed conservative. Unlike Gingrich, there would be no record of wild ideas, personal scandal and rhetorical excesses to defend.

And unlike Santorum, Daniels is focused on what counts in America today — debt and jobs — not on a right-wing social agenda. And he’s no withdraw-from-the-world libertarian like Rep. Ron Paul (Texas).

“Anyone who will join us in the cause of growth and solvency is our ally and our friend,” Daniels said to Democrats and independents. “Let us rebuild our finances and the safety net and reopen the door to the stairway upward; any other disagreements we may have can wait.”

Unlike those running, Daniels gave Obama some credit — for thwarting al-Qaida and for “bravely backing long-overdue changes in public education” — while attacking him for relying, expensively and inefficiently, on government as the answer to practically every problem.

Obama, in his address, cited President Abraham Lincoln’s famous saying that “government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves and no more,” but his speech and administration suggest he thinks there’s little that people or the private economy can do without heavy government intervention.

Daniels said, with wit: “In word and deed, the president and his allies tell us that we just can’t handle ourselves in this complex, perilous world without their benevolent protection.

“Left to ourselves, we might pick the wrong health insurance, the wrong mortgage, the wrong school for our kids — why, unless they stop us, we might pick the wrong light bulb.”

Unlike Romney, Daniels didn’t accuse Obama of being a “European socialist” or claim, like Gingrich, that he’s a “Saul Alinsky radical” and “un-American.”

Daniels said, rightly, that the state of the union is “grave,” that Obama has “added trillions to an already unaffordable national debt” and that “he seems to sincerely believe we can build a middle class out of government jobs paid for with borrowed dollars.

“It works the other way: A government as big and bossy as this one is maintained on the backs of the middle class and those who hope to join it.”

Obama did do some good things in his speech, rhetorically and programmatically. He claimed he was laying out “a blueprint for an economy that’s built to last, an economy built on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers and renewal of American values.”

He wants to spend money on things the country needs — infrastructure, education and research. And he favors immigration reform that expands the talent pool instead of trying, as Romney says, to “self-deport” it.

Obama has finally come around to seeing the virtue of a “do-it-all” energy policy, but “all” self-destructively excludes the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Texas.

But there’s no greater example of Obama’s fixation on government than his idea of “tax reform.” Instead of lowering rates and eliminating loopholes to make the tax code market-efficient, he’d enormously complicate it to benefit favored constituencies and punish unfavored ones.

Daniels, unlike the GOP candidates, believes the economy needs sacrifice from the highest-earners, “but there are smart ways and dumb ways to do this.

“The dumb way is to raise rates in a broken, grossly complex tax system, choking off growth without bringing in the revenues we need to meet our debts.

“The better course is to stop sending the wealthy benefits they do not need, stop providing them so many tax preferences that distort our economy and do little to foster growth.”

You can understand why someone sane, such as Daniels, would not want to put himself and his family into the ugly cauldron that presidential politics has become.

On the other hand, I have this fantasy that Romney, Gingrich and the others will mutually destroy each other all the way to the GOP convention, which will turn — in hope and disgust — to one of the A-team. If not Daniels, then former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

It’s only a fantasy. But last week’s events — the South Carolina primary, more debates and the competing addresses on State of the Union night — show we could do a lot better than the choices we have.

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