With apologies to Simon and Garfunkel:Where have you gone, Mitch Daniels, a party turns its lonely eyes to you…The purported Republican savior du jour is a mild-mannered, passion-challenged, five-foot-seven balding Hoosier who, absent all the desperate pleas from the GOP establishment, would prefer to stay home and skip a presidential bid in 2012. He did indicate last Friday that he intends to sign the Indiana bill to defund Planned Parenthood – thereby giving him cred with the morality conservatives who will vote heavily next winter in the Iowa caucuses – but in an interview with some conservative journalists yesterday, he was clearly not burning with a desire to live on the road for the next 18 months. He suggested that, yeah, maybe he’ll run “if I talk myself into this.” He also stressed that it would be great if some other estimable Republican took the plunge instead; the problem is, “I haven’t yet — still hope to — seen anyone else step up to it.”This guy is giving me Fred Thompson vibes.You may remember affable Fred, the actor/senator who was the GOP’s great white hope of 2007, when many in the party were underwhelmed by the likes of John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee. After much cajoling, he joined the race – only to snooze himself into oblivion. The problem was, he lacked the requisite inner fire. Mitch Daniels may ultimately decide to run – rumor has it he could announce something by the end of next week – but his flame also seems to be set on permanent simmer. That low flame is a manifestation of his natural temperament, and Republicans might see that as laudable, because, unlike many politicians, he comes off as a real human. On the other hand, he is also quite candid – perhaps to his own political detriment. If he really was burning to run, perhaps he would be more guarded. For instance, when asked yesterday whether he was ready to debate President Obama on foreign policy, he replied:”Probably not.”No, no, no, that’s not what a Republican ought to say, ever.There is no way that the self-professed party of muscular national security – the party that has long considered itself the true steward of American foreign policy, the party that has frequently succeeded in painting the Democrats as foreign policy wimps – will ever nominate a candidate who concedes commander-in-chief turf to Barack Obama.And the national-security factor is now more important than ever, in the wake of Obama’s success in knocking off the master terrorist who eluded George W. Bush.Even if the ’12 campaign is fought primarily on domestic economic issues, Republicans won’t want to punt the foreign policy realm. That’s not who they are. The problem is, virtually none of the Republican hopefuls have any foreign policy credentials – and, it turns out, alleged savior Mitch Daniels doesn’t have any, either. And worse yet, he essentially confesses it.According to a National Review post yesterday, “On Afghanistan, he refuses to second-guess the decisions of the president, to whose greater access to information he defers.” No traction for Republicans on that one. On the issue of America’s far-flung military commitments, Daniels said that “it cannot be illegitimate to ask” whether some changes should be made, but he didn’t offer any answers. No traction for Republicans on that one, either.The thing is, Daniels has never worked in the foreign policy realm; he has never had to think seriously about any of that stuff. He was a Senate aide for awhile back in the ’80s, then he worked for an Indiana think tank, then he made a lot of money in the private sector, then he served as Bush’s first budget director, then he returned to Indiana to wrestle as governor with everyday issues such as school vouchers. (Was Obama a foreign policy maven when he announced his ’08 bid? Nope. But he had a strong interest in those issues, and discussed them frequently – most notably when he opposed the Iraq war while still a state senator.) Indeed, Daniels’ vague foreign policy responses yesterday mirror the vague responses he offered back in June 2010, during another meeting with conservative journalists (which proves that in the interim he has evinced little interest in prepping for a presidential race.) Commentator Jennifer Rubin attended that ’10 sitdown, and subsequently wrote this skeptical account:”I asked him the sole question on foreign policy — in what fundamental ways had Obama erred? He did not address any of the basic concerns conservatives have been discussing (e.g., engagement with despots, indifference on human rights, animus toward Israel). Instead, he gave a platitude, ‘Peace through strength has totally been vindicated.’ And then he immediately asserted that we have to ‘ask questions about the extent of our commitments.’ He said, ‘If we go broke, no one will follow a pauper.’ At least temporarily, he said, we can’t maintain all our commitments. “But (Rubin asked Daniels) if our foes don’t take a break, what do we do? Should we pull up stakes in Iraq and Afghanistan and hack away at the defense budget? It’s not clear whether he has thought these issues through, or whether he views foreign policy as anything more than a cost-control issue.”Rubin is still on Daniels’ case. She noted the other day that Daniels was virtually the sole prospective ’12 candidate to resist commenting on the death of Osama bin Laden. She wrote that he doesn’t seem like “a guy who envisions himself as commander in chief….Does he have views or even an interest in national security? He has never said or written anything to suggest he does. Maybe this is above his pay grade, and he prefers to stick to what he knows — budget cutting. Maybe Daniels will never throw his hat into the ring. But if he does, it is fair to ask whether he understands the obligations of and has any views on the job of commander in chief.”And The Daily Caller, the ascendant conservative website, piled on Daniels yesterday: “His stunning and telling silence about defense and foreign policy…suggests that Daniels isn’t a serious or credible candidate.”Such are the telltale symptoms of Fred Thompson disease. The big question today is whether Daniels has the requisite adrenaline to stretch beyond his comfort zone.
Meanwhile, in South Carolina, the lineup is set for the first Republican presidential candidates debate, slated for tomorrow night. Prepare to be dazzled:Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Herman Cain, and Gary Johnson.Those guys – combined – draw roughly 10 percent support from grassroots Republicans nationwide.Does this party know how to put on a show, or what? The word pathetic comes to mind, but I prefer this rueful lament, voiced yesterday by GOP operative Bob McAlister:”It’s like a beauty contest where all the women are ugly.”