Mitch Daniels might be running the smartest presidential campaign of any Republican and he might not even be running. He has gotten glowing profiles from both the Weekly Standard and National Review (only available to subscribers it seems.) He has written several smart op-eds for the Wall Street Journal on the takeovers of GM and Chrysler, health care, and cap and trade.
Daniels has the chance to combine elements of Obama's 2008 appeal and position himself as the antidote to Obama's shortcomings. By not being a retread presidential candidate or a recent member of the Republican Washington leadership (and his Washington experience was obscure to most people who aren't obsessed with politics), Daniels can come across as a fresh face from the hinterland running for hope and change against a corrupt, incompetent and spendthrift Washington establishment. But unlike Obama, he can point to oodles of experience and to a record where he was able to balance the budget while keeping taxes under control, and both maintaining and demanding a higher standard of government services.
Daniels' Wall Street Journal op-eds also show the outlines of a compelling 2012 message. He has a record of moving health care policy in a market-driven direction through HSAs. What really helps Daniels is that his HSA plan had positive outcomes that can be pointed to in a campaign. The great political weakness of market-driven health care reforms is that they ask the public to give up something they like in the form of employer-provided health insurance (even if they think it costs too much) in return for a promise that market-driven policies (whether renewable individual policies or HSAs) will make things better. The act of asking the public to give up something real for something that is outside most people's experience gives Democrats the opening to terrify the public with the prospect of losing their coverage and in return getting nothing or inferior coverage that costs more. Daniels will be able to point to Indiana and say that his health care plan, in the real world, increased people's take home pay, saved the government money, and preserved people's access to the world's best health care system. That also gives Daniels one heck of a platform from which to attack the other guy's combination of individual mandates, coverage mandates, tax increases, and expensive subsidies.
Daniels also seems to have found the range in attacking Obama's economic policies. Obama likes to say that he is pro-business and not a socialist. Fair enough, but there are lots of ways to be pro-business and not all of them are good. A cap and trade bill that taxes most people and businesses and subsidizes connected companies is pro some businesses but not really all that good for most of us. A health care bill that forces us to buy insurance that costs too much is pro some businesses but bad for most if it increases the cost of coverage for businesses and workers and/or increases government costs that have to be paid in either higher taxes or fewer medical services. Daniels' description of Obama's policies as "crony capitalism" ties together a bunch of Obama policies (Obamacare, cap and trade, the takeover of the auto companies) and taps into public frustration not only with government, but with the privileges of insiders.
Daniels doesn't seem to be doing the things a presidential candidate is expected to do in our current permanent campaign era. He isn't going to Iowa or New Hampshire and if he is building on the ground operations in those states he is keeping it very quiet. He hasn't published a pre-campaign campaign biography/manifesto and left his job behind to go on a nationwide book tour so people can tell him how awesome he is. Daniels has a PAC that distributes money to favored candidates, but it seems more oriented to Indiana races than toward collecting chits from Republican candidates around the country. All this would seem to put him at a fundraising and organizational disadvantage for a presidential campaign, but I wonder about that. If a candidate can produce the right buzz through their message and positive media coverage (and conservative journalists seem to really like him), the internet can produce a huge surge of cash. If no other candidate produces genuine enthusiasm, even someone with a "late" start in the summer of 2011 can swamp established GOTV operations of candidates that are neither loved nor fully trusted. Above all, the thrill of novelty should not be underestimated, and especially not when it is combined with substance. But what do I know? I backed Phil Gramm in 1996.