Last Wednesday I wound around the lake to a Bellevue hotel ballroom for the only thing that draws me — every year or two — to Bellevue hotels: a celebratory gathering of this region’s conservative elite. The occasion this year (Oct. 12) was the annual banquet of the Washington Policy Center, this locale’s answer to the host of conservative policy and polemic shops (a.k.a. “think tanks”) back East. The cause for celebration was the crushing defeat last November of Initiative 1098, the ballot measure sponsored by Bill Gates Sr. and opposed by Steve Ballmer and Jeff Bezos, which would have imposed a special tax on incomes of more than $200,000 a year.
Down at Westlake the Occupy Seattle crowds, like their counterparts in other cities, protested the declining fortunes and growing burdens of the “other 99 percent.” At the Bellevue Grand Hyatt, the WPC bestowed its Champion of Freedom Award on venture capitalist Matt McIlwain, who led the campaign to defeat I-1098. Given the timing, the celebration was also, inevitably, a pep rally against President Obama’s proposal for a similar rich tax — creeping, economy-killing redistributionism if ever this crowd saw it. But the real attraction was an unusual pair of illustrious speakers: two Republican stalwarts, veterans of the last few Republican administrations, both of whom last summer forswore running for president.
One, Fox News commentator John Bolton, George W. Bush’s famously combative and divisive ambassador to the United Nations, had mentioned himself as a prospective candidate to become America’s first mustachioed president since William Howard Taft. Nobody noticed. He would have offered red meat to a few hardcore believers and a red flag to everyone else.
The other, Mitch Daniels, Indiana’s famously disarming and inclusive governor and previously Bush’s budget director, would have been taken more seriously if he’d run. Many other people said he should. Some still lament that he didn't.
As it happened, I had an errand to perform on the way to the Grand Hyatt, which proved an apt prelude to Bolton’s talk. I stopped to look at a used Honda, a prospective replacement for my dearly departed 22-year-old clunker. The young fellow selling it apologized when I turned the ignition and Arabic music came on. Sounds good, I said, and we fell to talking.
He was from Iraq, where he worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Army and other agencies; he and his family arrived as refugees nearly two years ago, after that work put their lives at risk. In sadness rather than anger he recalled the madness unleashed by the American invasion and occupation of his country — “Muslims killing Muslims in the name of Islam, it’s crazy!” — and the colossal, blundering arrogance behind them. “The worst thing was they fired the whole army. What are those guys going to do? They have to make a living somehow. So foreigners come and pay them to kill.”
I’d hoped to ask Bolton if he had any second thoughts about that invasion, or any of the other high points of his five years in the Bush administration, from endorsing since-discredited claims that Iraq tried to acquire uranium from Niger and Cuba exported bioweapon technology to rogue states, to (in many allies' views) sabotaging much-needed U.N. reforms with his overbearing approach, to dismissing the U.N. itself as a sham and Palestinian statehood as “a ploy.”
But I missed the media op and had to make do with Bolton’s banquet speech. It gave no hint of second thoughts. Instead Bolton lamented the ills of the Arab Spring: 100,000 Coptic Christians have since fled Egypt (he didn’t mention that up to 600,000 Christians are estimated to have fled Iraq since the 2003 invasion), and Israel, its dictator friends overthrown, is threatened by hostile popular movements. Meanwhile an arch enemy looms in the shadows: “The principle threat to peace and security in the Middle East is not, as our current administration believes, the construction of a few apartment buildings in East Jerusalem,” he intoned. “The principle threat ... is Iran.”
Bolton dismissed the notion that "American preeminence" (and, by implication, the shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later policies he exemplified) provokes resentment or resistance around the world. “Ladies and gentlemen, it is not American strength that is provocative. It is weakness that is provocative... . And” — his tone turned dire — “we have been in the last years very provocative.”
I recalled how Bolton abjured the label “neoconservative” because it misrepresented not his views but his history. It suggested there was a time when he wasn’t conservative, and he’d been a teenage volunteer in Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. That may give an inkling of what lies behind his adamant dedication to what he still calls “the war against terrorism.” The Goldwater campaign marked the crest in a 40-year cycle of Cold War alarm and anticommunist zeal. After that, Vietnam War ambiguities and Nixonian détente muddied the picture, until the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Reagan’s election restored moral clarity and reinstated the Soviet Union as an existential threat.
When that evil empire inconveniently collapsed, hardcore hawks were adrift, despite their best efforts to inflate immigrants, environazis, gay brides and grooms, and blue dresses into existential threats. Luckily, a few amateur Saudi pilots crashed some planes in New York, Arlington, and the Pennsylvania hills, providing a threat that’s too diffuse to ever collapse. As Bolton told the banquet crowd, “the war against terrorism is always going to be a long war.”
When he took the podium, Mitch Daniels tipped his hat: “We faced down the original red menace thanks to people like John Bolton in the last half of the last century.” But he shut the lid on the post-Cold War search for foreign arch-enemies and invoked a very different red menace: “The red ink which menaces us now, in some respects, is to me even more alarming [because its effects are] a lot more certain to happen." Daniels bore down on this "survival-level issue" in characteristic pragmatic style: “This problem is not ideological. It’s arithmetical. I say to people, Can we save the ideological debate until tomorrow? Can we just agree here tonight that the math does not work?"
You don’t need to be Paul Krugman to savor the irony of hearing such words from George W. Bush’s first budget director, on whose watch a projected surplus of $236 billion morphed into a $400 billion deficit. (Both numbers sound nostalgic in these days of trillion-dollar deficits, but there was no Great Recession and looming financial collapse then to justify Keynesian spending.) Daniels took hits for endorsing fanciful claims about how whopping tax cuts wouldn’t dent the budget, and for supposedly misrepresenting the costs of the Iraq war by (accurately) estimating only the first year’s cost and omitting subsequent years’.
But Daniels, whom Bush nicknamed “the Blade” for his budget-paring skills, was more loyal mouthpiece than nefarious instigator of these red-soaked budgets. He proposed deep spending cuts that might have balanced Bush’s tax cuts, which the mostly Republican Congress predictably refused to enact. Afterward, as Indiana’s governor, he amply proved he was serious about budget-balancing, and very good at it.
After taking office in 2005, Daniels strenuously trimmed expenditures and renegotiated state contracts. Forget Obama’s “millionaires tax”; many in the hall might be shocked to learn that Daniels proposed a special one-year, 1 percent tax on Indianans earning more than $100,000. Republican legislators nixed that, but Daniels nevertheless managed to turn a projected $600 million deficit into a $370 million surplus and reduce the growth in subsequent state spending by half.
Daniels went on to institute state-subsidized health coverage for uninsured workers, funded by higher cigarette taxes. He helped get a property-tax cap enshrined in the state constitution. But not all his measures had the same kinder-and-gentler glow. On his first day in office, he decertified state employee labor unions. He later got school teachers’ collective bargaining rights restricted and introduced school vouchers. And he backed the first law in the nation to require official photo ID at polling places.
The marvel is that Daniels did all this without provoking the massive local resistance and national notoriety that greeted Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s new governor, who moved with similar dispatch to break state union contracts. That’s doubtless partly because of differences in the two states’ political cultures and the governors’ respective union-busting measures. But it also reflects Daniels’ political skills, his ability to play both sides of the ideological aisle at once, or at least to lull one side while satisfying the other.
Daniels started his talk by lauding “the first person who drew me to politics”: fellow Hoosier William Ruckelshaus, whose Senate campaign the teenage Daniels volunteered on. Ruckelshaus, the founding administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and chairman of the Puget Sound Partnership (and, let it be disclosed, a Crosscut board member) is also a local hero out here, where he’s lived for 36 years. He exemplifies a moderate 20th century Republicanism, dedicated to stewardship rather than anti-regulatory orthodoxy, that’s alienated him from today’s party; in 2008 he supported Obama. “Bill and Jill Ruckelshaus are still revered in Indiana,” Daniels drawled, with an invisible wink. And they’re always welcome to come back: “Just like a good library, we have a liberal return policy. We don’t care what condition he’s in.” The WPC crowd roared.
Daniels deploys aphorisms as handily as jokes to stake out a conservatism that seems nearly as anachronistic as Ruckelshaus’s conservation ethic. He can toss a bone to his audience — “Government is the last monopoly, and monopolies overcharge and underserve their customers” — and then flip it around to argue that government can be made to serve better by introducing internal competition: “We pay people in Indiana on a performance basis, not on a Bell curve.”
“There are those with all the right instincts who are letting skepticism about big government become contempt for all government,” he intoned. “Yes, government should be limited. But it should also be excellent.”
Like Bill Clinton, Daniels seems to know that a folksy drawl is the best way to shed the stigma of braininess; he speaks with a remarkably thick one for someone who spent only part of his early childhood in the South, between years in Pennsylvania and Indiana. And like Clinton, he’s trying to bridge the gap between Reagan and Obama, between reflexive government-bashing and orthodox statism. Government is a problem, but it can and must be part of the solution.
Can such a bridge hold in this raging political climate? After decades of getting roused by Limbaugh, Bachmann, and a legion of intervening demagogues and ideologues, and watching Bush, the last president to propose making government run like a business, instead preside over runaway growth in its scale and intrusiveness, are Republicans ready for Daniels’ inspirational pragmatism? After the dinner, the Washington Policy Center’s faithful got to vote with their feet (and credit cards) for John Bolton’s call to the international barricades or Mitch Daniels’ call to national renewal. The two waited at one end of the Hyatt’s grand hallway to sign their books, which were stacked up for sale.
Daniels had the advantage: His Keeping the Republic: Saving America by Trusting Americans (and invoking Ben Franklin) just came out, while Bolton’s Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations is already in paperback. But signings are also chances to chat with heroes and gurus and cheer their causes. Scores of fans lined up to meet Mitch Daniels and receive his autographed wisdom. Only a handful gathered at Bolton’s table, and they were done and gone while 20 still waited at Daniels’.