Commentary: Mitch Daniels, away from the tumult

By John Krull
TheStatehouseFile.com 

INDIANAPOLIS – Leaving politics appears to agree with Mitch Daniels.

Whether this is good for Indiana or America is another question altogether.

John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com

John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com

On the day Daniels and I talk, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Ben Carson, Jeb Column by John KrullBush, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders bounce back and forth between primary voters in South Carolina and caucus voters in Nevada, shouting, shouting, shouting and complaining, complaining, complaining. They want to build walls, block nominations, indict Wall Street and ban entire faith groups from our shores.

From the left (Sanders), the right (Cruz) and the collection of random points on the political compass that is The Donald, the message is pretty much the same.

Everything is bad, bad, bad and the only possible response is to get mad, mad, mad, but, whatever you do, don’t try to think of a way to improve the situation. Screaming about a problem, after all, is ever so much better than solving it.

Closer to home in Indiana, Daniels’ successor as governor, fellow Republican Mike Pence, and the GOP candidates to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Dan Coats, R-Indiana, play a disjointed and dysfunctional game of musical chairs to determine who will be Pence’s running mate and who will appear on the ballot in the May primary. At the same time, the state continues to rip itself apart in political battles over whether civil rights protections should be extended to citizens on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity – questions that likely will be resolved in the courts eventually, anyway.

Daniels doesn’t seem to miss the tumult.

The former governor and current Purdue University president sits with Indiana Higher Education Commissioner Teresa Lubbers, Franklin College President Thomas Minar and me in a radio studio discussing challenges confronting colleges and universities.

Daniels is in vintage form.

When a listener sends in a question by email about the disconnect between the average college student’s debt upon graduation – $35,000 – and reports that University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban soon may draw $10 million per year in compensation, Daniels’ answer is one word.

“Amen.”

After letting that sink in, he says many things in education must be brought back into proper balance, including athletics.

The conversation ranges from finding ways to make college curricula outcome-based rather than input-based to figuring out how to implement life-long learning to discovering new ways to finance the cost of going to college.

Through it all, Daniels is Daniels.

He tosses out one idea after another, provocative in his low-key, matter-of-fact fashion.

He doesn’t scream.

He doesn’t shout.

He just talks.

He talks about innovative ways to find economies of scale. He sketches out a possible path to shifting burden and risk for funding college from students to investors. He describes the need for a continuum of education.

Some of it I find myself agreeing with. Some I don’t.

But that’s typical.

Daniels and I don’t see eye-to-eye on many things.

When I write something with which he disagrees, he often drops me a note or makes a call to show me, politely, the error in my thinking.

Sometimes he persuades me. Sometimes he doesn’t.

But that is beside the point.

What Mitch Daniels brings to any debate or discussion is something sorely missing thus far from this year’s presidential contest – and from our increasingly nasty and pointlessly divisive battles at the state level.

That is a belief that ideas matter.

That we can find solutions to problems if we just keep thinking and working.

When Daniels opted not to run for president four years ago, I wrote that his decision likely would cost the country a chance to elevate the debate about its future. I said he and Barack Obama were well suited to have one of those historic debates about this nation’s future and identity.

It was true then – and even truer now.

After the show, Daniels stops to chat with some young people who came to watch the broadcast. I introduce him to one of my students by saying she just had come back from somewhere he might have been – the Iowa caucuses, where she’d been reporting for our news service.

“Oh, no,” Mitch Daniels says with a laugh. “I stay as far away from there as I can.”

That’s a pity.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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