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The government you won't miss

"The government you won't miss" Continued...

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

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On his first day as governor he rescinded an executive order giving collective bargaining rights to state employees.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."

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is WORLD's Washington Bureau chief. As a reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, he was embedded with a National Guard unit in Iraq. He also once worked in the press office of Sen. Lamar Alexander.

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