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The government you won't miss

The Rise of Localism | Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is a back-to-his-roots politician with a national message and a toe in the 2012 presidential campaign

Issue: "The rise of localism," March 12, 2011

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.

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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.

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