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The young conservative case for Mitch Daniels

After delivering a sober CPAC speech on the national debt and entitlements, Mitch Daniels won some attention for 2012 — including among young conservatives.

Much has been stated and overstated about the importance of the youth vote in Barack Obama’s presidential victory. He seemed young, hip, fresh—only semantically a baby boomer. He appealed to college-age narcissism with rallying cries like “we are the ones we have been waiting for!” He built an idealistic message and did notably better at youth turn-out than his recent predecessors.

It is to be expected, then, that the youth vote did not turn out for his party at the midterms. First, youth turnout in midterms is historically much lower than that of presidential years. Second, Barack Obama, supposed youth-electrifier, was not at the top of the ticket. Third, idealism necessarily ebbs after two years of challenges from a complex world.

But I would cautiously add a fourth reason: Barack Obama’s presidency has been remarkably bad for young people.

Health care reform has instituted regulations on the pricing of insurance that will shift payment from the old and enfeebled to the young and healthy. Our costs are going up now, while the skyrocketing debt looks to inevitably burden our generation with unknown costs. The man who rode a wave of youth support has been quietly, and often indirectly, squeezing dollars out of the young.

The GOP has a ready-made case to the youth voter: baby-boomer indulgence has run its course, you will not pay in to entitlement programs you will never take out of, and you will not inherit the ticking time bomb of an incorrigible national debt. This is precisely the case Governor Mitch Daniels makes.

To a graduating class at Butler University, Governor Daniels, apologized on behalf of his generation:

As a generation, we did tend to live for today. We have spent more and saved less than any previous Americans. Year after year, regardless which party we picked to lead the country, we ran up deficits that have multiplied the debt you and your children will be paying off your entire working lives. Far more burdensome to you mathematically, we voted ourselves increasing levels of Social Security pensions and Medicare health care benefits, but never summoned the political maturity to put those programs on anything resembling a sound actuarial footing.

In sum, our parents scrimped and saved to provide us a better living standards than theirs; we borrowed and splurged and will leave you a staggering pile of bills to pay. It’s been a blast; good luck cleaning up after us.

If Daniels chooses to run for President, he seems likely to be animated by a sense of moral responsibility to atone for his generation’s indulgence. He will have to avoid running what amounts to a single-issue candidacy—presidential candidates comment on too much these days, but Daniels will still need to provide a foreign policy vision beyond keeping America’s economic edge—but his touchstone will be the debt.

All the GOP candidates are likely to talk about corralling spending; all should talk about significant entitlement reform and I believe many will. Daniels is in part separated from the pack by his willingness to discuss entitlement reform early and often. His recent speech at CPAC mentioned “Medicare 2.0” and hinted at vouchers for Medicare, means-testing, reducing Social Security indexing, and raising the retirement age—the proper kitchen-sink approach to a drastic problem. These are bold steps that must be part of any platform for limited government conservatives.

But, perhaps most importantly, Daniels understands the political difficulty of these needed entitlement reforms and budget cuts. It is much harder to accomplish large-scale reform in Washington than in Indianapolis, or, for that matter, St. Paul, Boston, Jackson, or Juneau. It will require a significant electoral mandate, and long coat-tails in House and Senate races. A Daniels campaign would need to draw in moderates by the bushel and set-up stakes beyond the Reagan big-tent. To accomplish such reform, Daniels could not rely on base-motivating wedge issues because they could only lead to a slim victory and a toxic political atmosphere. Thus Daniels speaks of the much derided and even more often misunderstood “social truce.”

Daniels is, from his record, a social conservative of conviction. He is certainly pro-life and has governed like it. One of my favorite social conservative initiatives of his is to go after deadbeat dads late on payments by denying them hunting and fishing licenses and casino payouts.

Still his call for a social truce, which he describes as everyone “standing down for a little while” on the social issues while we address the debt emergency, has irked many who see it as an admission of willingness to trade concessions to Democrats on social issues in exchange for concessions on fiscal reform. The most thoughtful critique came on National Review’s The Corner blog where Yuval Levin criticized its seeming naivete about policymaking:

It is very hard to make sense of Mitch Daniels’s continuing restatements of his “truce” notion. They seem to skip over the basic fact that you can’t always just pick your own battles in politics. He could easily add a sentence to these statements along the lines of “but if a fight is forced on us, I would obviously want (or be) a president who stands up for the sanctity of human life and the centrality of the family.” […]

Daniels seems to be asserting the priority of the economic and fiscal issues, but should he not acknowledge the continuing existence and importance of the social issues alongside them, and indeed the deep and abiding connection between the two?

Yuval, of course, is right. Presidents are not always able to pick their battles, and presidents can pursue multiple issues. These are all fair criticisms of governing according to the social truce.

But the social truce, in Daniels’ CPAC speech, was clothed among a number of other suggestions for how conservatives “must unify America, or enough of it, to demand and sustain the big change we propose.”

The social truce is a way of campaigning without wedging the electorate or putting off the many moderates who are hesitant about social conservatism. It is meant to create the political conditions for significant entitlement reform and budget cuts. Perhaps it is tough to envision how it would work in practice precisely because it isn’t meant for practice. A President Daniels will likely lower the volume on social issues as an aftereffect of his campaign social truce, but the issues are unlikely to go away and neither will Governor Daniels’ social conservative convictions.

Unifying America, or enough of it, should include appeals to the youth. It is in our interest to support the candidate who is most serious about entitlement reform and budget cutting and most ready to pursue such reforms. I do not know if young people will join Daniels’ big tent, but that he seems to feel such a moral obligation to clean up his generation’s mess, even without the bulk of us at his side, is a very good sign.

Jeremy Rozansky is the media avisor for Students for Daniels. He is an editor of the University of Chicago Counterpoint, and a member of the Student Free Press Association.

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