I'm not done with this Mitch Daniels thing yet. How does it play out if Daniels runs for President and if he keeps his current strategy of trying to avoid social issues and trying to get everyone else to do the same thing? Here how I think it would probably play out:
First, Daniels would take fire from social conservative leaders and his rivals for the Republican nomination. Try to picture the ads about Daniels not willing to take a position on whether the federal government should subsidize abortions under most circumstances or whether he would he would appoint judges that imposed liberal social policies. It would become a media story that would compete with Daniels' economic message. Ironically, Daniels' not talking about social issues will create a spiral of commentary on Daniels not talking about the social issues. This wouldn't be a big problem if millions of people didn't care about these issues. And I don't just mean people who are socially conservative first. There are lots of economic conservatives who are also social conservatives. This is a threshold thing. Someone doesn't have to be the best social conservative or have a perfect record (see Romney or McCain), but tossing the social issues overboard risks alienating this large group of down the line(ish) conservatives along with the social conservatism-first group. Daniels has a chance to be the Republican contender with the best economic record and the best economic message. If he is acceptable on the other issues, I think he would have a good shot. But if people who are socially conservative get the idea that he has written their issues off... well then there will be plenty of other Republican contenders who are also selling their own brand of economic conservatism (maybe not as good) but who also have some kind of social agenda.
Then after these dynamics become clear, Daniels will be backed into making some kind of high profile statement of principles and lay out some set of policies on the social issues. But the damage will have been done. Social liberalism-first voters will scorn Daniels because he laid out policies they disagreed with. The reality is that (as Reihan Salam pointed out somewhere) neither Daniels nor any other Republican presidential candidate was ever going to get these voters. Voter who don't think much about the social issues one way or another will think less of Daniels because he will have clearly made his statement out of political pressure rather than conviction. With these voters, he will take a hit on character rather than ideology. Social conservatives will discount his statement because it will seem like he had to be dragged into making it. This strategy is lots of loss for no gain.
The way to really deemphasize social issues is to lay out an orthodox set of principles (if those are Daniels' principles) and an incremental policy agenda built around policies with majority support. The country will not be unduly divided at the news that the Republican presidential candidate is pro-life, and if Democrats want to build a campaign around defending taxpayer-funded abortions, let them. The way to focus on economic issues is to talk about the economic issues most of the time and in the greatest detail. The irony is that the best way for Daniels to minimize having to talk about the social issues is for him to have something of substance to say.
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