WASHINGTON-If you've driven through Indiana anytime during the last seven years and passed a cyclist on a Harley-Davidson with a small entourage trailing, then it's likely you've glimpsed Mitch Daniels, the state's Republican governor. If you hear the roar of his motorcycle, be forewarned: Gov. Daniels may be headed to your home, to stay.
In 2004 Daniels had a full resumé-seven years as a U.S. Senate staffer, a White House aide under two presidents, head of an Indiana-based conservative think tank, and top executive at pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company. But he had never run for public office.
So when he did run for governor, Daniels couldn't stand the thought of spending campaign dollars on hotels. "So I just said, 'Somebody find me a couch,'" Daniels recalled.
Somebody did-as well as a few children's bedrooms. It's all chronicled on MitchTV, 30-minute video episodes (with titles such as "My Cow Mitch" and "The Birds and the Bee") now archived on the web. They show how Daniels, usually in an RV but sometimes on his Harley, connected.
After a narrow victory in 2004 (the first time anyone unseated an incumbent governor in Indiana since 1894), Daniels concluded that home visits must work, and decided to keep doing them. He has spent the night with a Hispanic family of eight where a concrete drain in the basement served as the only shower. And his overnight with an Amish family went so well that he got invited back to a wedding. His most recent home visit was with a farm family in Wanatah, and soon he will stay in his 100th Indiana home. It's an experience Daniels has enjoyed immensely: "I've learned something different at every place."
Daniels won reelection in 2008 by an 18-point margin despite Barack Obama becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Indiana since 1964. Daniels collected the most votes in the state's history, including 20 percent of the black vote. Now the two-term governor-who escaped Washington to recapture his Midwestern roots-is considering a run for the White House in 2012.
Can a couch-sleeping governor who went local in a flyover state beat President Obama? Ask Daniels this and he answers that he is not obsessed with being in public life. But he is testing how his views play on the national stage.
Daniels' fervor is directed against a ballooning, centralized government, what he calls statism. "Our morbidly obese federal government needs not just behavior modification but bariatric surgery," he recently told a Washington crowd. "You'd be amazed how much government you'll never miss."
He describes federal government as necessarily incompetent: "You simply can't make things work on that scale through central planning."
But Daniels is also a believer in limited government because of its compassionate effect on individuals: the dignity and fulfillment that comes with taking responsibility for oneself or for one's neighbor. He looks at Europe, where many nations have transferred their resources to the state. He sees a withering commitment toward others-Europeans use their high taxes to justify an unwillingness to make charitable donations.
"Your chances of succeeding are higher where people are directly involved, acting from their hearts," Daniels told me. "'When in doubt, do the duty nearest you,'" he said, echoing a quote from essayist Thomas Carlyle.
For Daniels this isn't mere philosophy. About a dozen years ago Daniels joined a venture in Indianapolis that today he calls the most important activity of his life: building a school.
It began at the only church Daniels has known in Indiana, Tabernacle Presbyterian Church. He started going there as a 10-year-old boy and is still a member 50 years later. Housed in an old Gothic building, today it's considered an inner-city church in downtown Indianapolis. When other downtown churches followed their members' flights to the suburbs, Tabernacle stayed. Its basketball gym and other facilities give the church one of the largest recreational sports programs in the city, dating back to when Daniels was a boy.
"We learned the pick and roll and about God's love on the very same court," said Daniels, who serves as an elder.
As surrounding residents struggled, the church's members responded with a soup kitchen as well as medical and legal clinics. But a group that included Daniels felt it was time to help the area's youth develop more than dribbling skills. The group secured a 100-year-old public-school building with wooden floors, high ceilings, and big chalkboards. It adopted a Christ-centered classical education structure and named the place The Oaks Academy after the "oaks of righteousness" found in Isaiah 61:3. Starting with an enrollment of 53 in 1998, the academy now has nearly 350 racially and economically mixed students. The curriculum emphasizes Latin, rhetoric, and logic.
Daniels recalls the early days, when he'd prayerfully go around asking for money. He'd take with him police maps of the city with different colored dots representing crimes like murder, drug arrests, burglary, and vandalism. "All those dots clustered right on top of our building," he said of the area, then known as Dodge City.
The young school endured weekly emergencies and survived just days ahead of creditors."It seemed like we were snatching the damsel off the tracks just in time all of the time," Daniels said. "Then little miracles happened."
Once a gang initiation ritual caused a fire in the school's basement, but the flames died before causing major damage. A local man called one day to say he had bought the school's old windows at an auction decades ago. He gave them back.
Daniels loves to show visitors the fully restored large, rectangular, stained-glass windows. They have returned to their original place on either side of the main entrance leading to the school's grand front hall. Their inscription is from John 8: "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free."
Said Daniels: "From 1895 to somewhere in the 1980s, thousands of young people came to school every day, to public school, and passed between those familiar pieces of Scripture and no one thought that was strange." The school has taught him that high expectations, love, and an environment infused with character and faith can overcome the handicaps often placed on disadvantaged youth.
While stories about The Oaks Academy flow out of Daniels, it is harder to get him to open up about his own spiritual life. He calls himself a traditionalist, preferring the old hymns, liturgy, and weekly communion found at his church's small 8 a.m. service. He calls humility the "central instruction of our faith. To place God at the center of our lives and to remember that He and He alone is great." He does evening devotionals (his wife just found a reproduction of Abraham Lincoln's devotional at a used bookstore) and snatches moments of prayer throughout the day. He tries to discipline his prayer life so he asks for guidance to do the right thing and to help others ("But never anything for myself. It never seemed to me that that was the point"). Mostly they are prayers of gratitude for a life he calls blessed.
Even if he is not as outspoken about his faith as other Christian conservatives, Daniels returns to the Scriptures when asked the origins of conservative political beliefs:"The whole notion as far as I can see of human equality only came into the world when Jesus did and said 'you are neither Jew or Gentile or Roman or Greek.'"
That makes his comments last year calling for a political "truce" on social issues all the more puzzling to many conservatives. His contention that everyone needs to get along until the nation's economic problems are solved may be why he garnered only 4 percent of the vote in a recent presidential straw poll at last month's Conservative Political Action Conference. "It is just a suggestion I made once," Daniels told me days before he was to give the keynote address at that conference. "Incidentally the comment was directed to people on both sides of those arguments, not just to the people I agree with."
Daniels believes the debt problem is a mortal threat to all Americans: "If the arithmetic is the way I read it, then this has to be an all-hands-on-deck situation. . . . All I am saying is that you'd like to get as many people together around those things. They threaten us all."
Ed Simcox, a former Indiana secretary of state and current board member for Prison Fellowship, said the "truce" comment may have been "inartful," but it didn't cause major waves in Indiana. Calling Daniels a strong pro-life advocate, Simcox said he is not worried that Daniels, as president, would leverage appointing a moderate Supreme Court justice to win deficit debates. And Daniels, when I asked whether he would spend the political capital necessary to nominate and confirm a conservative like Antonin Scalia to the high court, was adamant that he would, saying "strict construction" of both federal and state constitutions "is as important as any issue I can think of. It runs far deeper than any one topic a court might deal with; the question is whether the people rule or will be ruled by an unaccountable few."
"His faith is aligned with America's evangelical movement," said Simcox, who credits Daniels with giving a powerful apologetics defense of Christianity at a state prayer breakfast and with implementing faith-based programs at the state's corrections department.
During Daniels' time as White House budget director, President George W. Bush nicknamed him "The Blade." Today Daniels calls the nation's debt the "new Red Menace, this time consisting of ink." It is a problem he is not afraid to blame on his own generation. "We have been self-centered, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, and all too often just plain selfish," Daniels said at a 2009 commencement speech. "It's been a blast; good luck cleaning up after us."
Daniels is willing to take on publicly many of politics' third rails: He supports raising the retirement age, ending Social Security checks to the wealthy, and cutting defense spending. In testing the presidential waters, he wants to see if Americans are ready for such medicine: "People say we will never get the consensus together and that nobody can get elected arguing for these sorts of things. I'm not so sure, but somebody better find out."
As his home visits suggest, Daniels loves street-level campaigning. But he has field-tested his ideas in Indiana. There his administration has practiced what Daniels calls an "old tribal ritual-we spend less money than we take in."
Daniels took office after eight years of unbalanced budgets with the state facing a $200 million deficit. By the end of his first term, Indiana enjoyed a $1.3 billion surplus and a triple-A bond rating.
On his first day as governor he rescinded an executive order giving collective bargaining rights to state employees. Today the number of state employees has fallen to 1982 levels.
He generated nearly $4 billion by privatizing the state's toll roads, he cut property taxes by an average of 30 percent, and he created health savings accounts for thousands of low-income residents. Now he is trying to cap off his governorship by implementing a statewide voucher system for school choice and by pushing for tax refunds when state reserves hit a certain level.
The 61-year-old Princeton graduate, who cut his political teeth by serving as a top staffer for Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar 35 years ago, insists a presidential run is not a lifelong ambition: "There are things more important than politics. Maybe I could find something like The Oaks to work on."
But if Daniels does step out, something he has said he will decide by May, another major decision remains: Will he take his couch-sleeping habits on a nationwide road tour?
"I am still cheap, so probably yes," he said. "If the people will have me."