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Mitch’s Cease-Fire

June 16, 2010

Last week, Mitch Daniels said that the United States’ next POTUS “would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues” while the country takes care of its horrendous budgetary situation.  Predictably, this did not sit well with social conservatives.  Glossing over whatever arguments social conservatives may have about how abortion and same-sex marriage are just as important as fiscal health (does anybody see a gay crisis coming to a head within the decade?), there are practical issues with establishing an alleged “truce”, as Ramesh Ponnuru explains:

A lot of people will cheer that statement: Truces are usually popular, and most people see the economic issues as more important than the social ones at this moment. But I’m not sure how a truce would work. If Justice Kennedy retired on President Daniels’s watch, for example, he would have to pick someone as a replacement. End of truce.

Ross Douthat follows up:

…on the set of existing social-issue flashpoints where the president has direct power — executive orders and (especially) judicial appointments — Daniels’ suggestion doesn’t make any sense at all. It’s a political loser in the G.O.P. primaries, but more importantly it’s an impractical approach to governing: A “truce” policy would either turn out to be a meaningless rhetorical flourish (and would be quickly attacked as such), or else it would be indistinguishable from surrender.

Points taken, but I don’t think this is as big of a problem as Ponnuru and Douthat suggest.  It’s kind of like a kickboxer going into a cagefight with a wrestler.  The kickboxer certainly doesn’t want the fight to go to the ground; he obviously feels he can accomplish more standing.  Thus, during the fight he won’t try to take the wrestler down and armbar him—instead, he’ll try to kick the other guy’s head off.  Now, he has to be prepared to fight on the ground in the event that he gets taken down.  Sometimes, there’s nothing you can do about that (Georges St-Pierre has landed a majority of his takedowns in each of his last seven title defenses—at times, you just have to fight off your back).

In this analogy, Mitch Daniels is obviously the kickboxer.  If he were the President come 2013, he would’t want to focus on preventing federal funding from going to abortions or on the legality of same-sex marriage.  He’d much prefer to focus his domestic agenda on growing the economy and resolving our budgetary issues.  Of course, there are some things he wouldn’t be able to control.  If Kennedy retired in 2014, say, then Daniels would obviously have to make a move.  He wouldn’t plan on that—and he wouldn’t have campaigned on it—but he’d have to be prepared for it.  That doesn’t mean that he’d wave any sort of white flag on the issue.  He’d simply do the best he could to try to nominate a good judge.  Of course it’d become a social issue, but as the President he’d just have to play the hand he was dealt.  That doesn’t necessarily mean surrender, and it doesn’t mean that his “truce” rhetoric is “meaningless”.

As far as other things go, I expect DADT to be a resolved issue within the next three years.  I don’t see why Daniels couldn’t play the federalism card with regard to same-sex marriage—that’s the way I’d like to see it resolved, personally, and I think there’s a fair amount of the American population that would prefer a federalist method to seeing that particular issue resolved in the courts.  With regard to abortions in Mexico City, I think he could easily paint that as a financial issue—should we really be spending our taxpayers’ dollars on that?—a card he could also play if the idea of repealing the Affordable Care Act ever came up.  And as far as the Hyde Amendment goes, that’s not a very divisive issue anyway.  I don’t see him getting in hot water whichever way he leans on that one.

In sum, I like Mitch’s truce, and I don’t see why it is such a big deal that he wishes to govern that way.  He may not be able to sit out the entire social issues thing, but he can do the best he can until said issues literally fall into his lap.  Of course, this really is a GOP primary loser, but if Daniels were to indeed win the primary, I think the truce idea would play much better on the national stage than, say, Mike Huckabee’s platform.  Independents might be less turned off by a bible-beater and libertarians might be less likely to vote for Bob Barr if they thought the Republican candidate was less adamant about social issues.

Also, Drum notes that this is basically what the current President has been doing since he got into office.  It doesn’t seem like anybody except the special interest groups have gotten all riled up about his inaction on social issues.  His plummeting approval rating has much more to do with, well, the economy, the war, and that little accident in the Gulf.  Something tells me these things won’t be going away by the time the next Presidential election rolls around.

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