05.23.11

Mitch Daniels Rejects Candidates' Insane Path to the Presidency

In deciding not to run in 2012, Mitch Daniels took the sane route when confronted with a crazy presidential campaign process. Jack Germond on why candidates no longer are willing to subject their families to sometimes vicious intrusions by political enemies and the media.

Mitch Daniels’ decision against seeking the Republican nomination for president speaks volumes about the sorry state of American politics today. It is a de facto judgment by a serious politician that the game may no longer be worth the personal cost.

The Indiana governor never made any secret of his interest in running. The rule about those things has always been that anyone who has a chance to be president ends up running for it, or at least flirting with the idea.

But Daniels said “the interests and wishes of my family”—meaning his wife and four daughters—dictated his decision to stay out of the 2012 contest. They knew that a campaign for president would make them the targets of often mindless and sometimes vicious intrusions into their lives by their political enemies and some elements of the news media.

Daniels and his wife, Cheri, are vulnerable in this age of 24/7 “news” coverage because of an unusual hiatus in their marriage. In 1993, after 15 years together, Cheri left Daniels and moved to California, where she divorced him and married another man. In 1997 she divorced that second husband, returned to Indiana and remarried Mitch.

Why this is anyone’s business might seem to be a mystery or, at most, a topic of mild curiosity. But talk radio and cable television are relentless in pursuing what they perceive to be “further developments,” you should pardon the expression. Who would have the first exclusive interview with that interim husband in California? And who had custody of those four daughters? And what caused the divorce in the first place?

Moreover, we have learned in the last 20 years or so that the mainstream media are not immune to this illness. In a few days the story first disdained by the major newspapers and television networks becomes a story by virtue of the public noise about it. It was “out there” so we had to cover it, the editors of these respectable news organizations will insist. We owed it to our readers or viewers or whatever.

And if any news operation continues to resist, Mitch Daniels’ rivals in the Republican Party would force the “issue” into the public domain.

As a practical matter, the withdrawal by the Indiana governor may not affect the outcome of the contest for the nomination. As a former White House budget director and a politician who has been around the track a few times, he knows that making radical changes in the Medicare program is not the road to success at the polling place. So he would have been at odds with a congressionally powerful segment of his party on a critical issue.

Who would have the first exclusive interview with that interim husband in California?

Then, of course, there are the suspicions he raised among extremists when he suggested a campaign truce could be declared on social issues to concentrate on the economy in 2012. On the far right, this has been taken to show Daniels may be soft on abortion rights or, horrors, even gay marriage.

And what about that marriage and remarriage business, anyway? What’s the real story? And has anybody seen his birth certificate?

A better question: How long can we keep losing a Mitch Daniels in American politics?

Jack Germond has been covering national politics and Washington since 1960. He spent 20 years with the Gannett papers, then eight with the still-lamented Washington Star and more than 20 with the Baltimore Sun. He and his partner Jules Witcover wrote a syndicated column five days a week from 1977 through 2000, and four books about presidential campaigns. Germond's memoir is called Fat Man in a Middle Seat ; he has just completed his first novel. He and his wife Alice live on the Shenandoah River in West Virginia where he enjoys watching the birds and playing the horses.