I made a case for Mitch Daniels as a potential 2012 presidential candidate. Why should conservative be wary of Daniels? I'll try to be fair and balanced.
1. George Packer argues that Daniels got the cost of the Iraq War horribly wrong when Daniels was head of the OMB. Daniels responds that his estimate of the Iraq War's cost was only for the first six months of the war. I think Daniels has the better of this argument on the substance, but if he runs for President, he will also have to make sure everyone who hears the charge that Daniels underestimated the cost of the war (possibly to increase political support for the war) also hears Daniels' explanation.
2. What does Daniels think about foreign and defense policy? This is more of a blank space than a real weakness, but Daniels will have to fill it in. Unlike with McCain on domestic policy, I don't worry that Daniels won't do his homework if he decides to run for President. I don't see the foreign policy equivalent of McCain's responding to the financial crisis by suggesting putting Andrew Cuomo in charge of the SEC.
3. Does Daniels underestimate the importance of social issues? Daniels is reported to have said that we need a "truce" on social issues as the country deals with its economic problems. The 2012 presidential election is likely to be economy-driven unless there is some widely perceived foreign policy disaster at least as large as the Iraq War in 2006 (let us pray nothing like that happens.) But we should keep in mind President Obama's wise observation that a President should be able to handle more than one thing at a time. There is no contradiction in pushing a plan for economic reform and highlighting (though not obsessively), President Obama's abortion extremism. There is a way to highlight these issues in a way that is not obnoxious. In fact, a focus on social issues, would be, in every sense, preferable to the culture war identity politics that the McCain campaign played in 2008. I also worry that Daniels will fall into the same trap that Phil Gramm fell into in 1996. Despite a good record, Gramm was visibly uncomfortable talking about social issues. The result was that Pat Buchanan became the candidate of voters for whom social issues were a high priority. Buchanan ended up beating Gramm in the Louisiana caucuses and scuttled Gramm's hopes of being the conservative alternative to the establishment candidate Bob Dole. Daniels is a much more appealing candidate than Gramm, but Mike Huckabee is also a much more plausible President than Buchanan. I'm not sure that Daniels will be able to compete with Huckabee for those conservatives for whom social conservatism comes first by a wide margin, but he will need to be eloquent enough, often enough on the social issues so that social conservatives who are also strongly economic conservatives won't get the sense that he will marginalize their social concerns if he becomes President. Having good answers on the role of judges will go a long way, as would a strong message about the wrongness of late term abortion. There is a lot of rhetorical room to reassure social conservatives and even appeal to people outside of the conservative base. Tonality matters as much as substance here, but it will take work to get it right.