MITCH DANIELS AT CPAC: MENSCH OR SCHLEMIEL?

by Maggie Gallagher

Mitch Daniels is a mensch.

For those of you who've never lived in New York, that's Yiddish for a "standup guy," or as the Coen brothers put it in their 2009 movie, "A Serious Man."

At CPAC last week, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels gave a deadly serious -- and deeply moving -- call to solve the nation's gravest domestic problem: the mounting debt crisis that will crush our economy and destabilize our government unless we deal with it now.

"The American project," he told us, "is menaced by a survival-level threat. We face an enemy, lethal to liberty, and even more implacable than those America has defeated before. ... I refer, of course, to the debts our nation has amassed for itself over decades of indulgence. It is the new Red Menace, this time consisting of ink. We can debate its origins endlessly and search for villains on ideological grounds, but the reality is pure arithmetic. No enterprise, small or large, public or private, can remain self-governing, let alone successful, so deeply in hock to others as we are about to be."

His call could not have been more timely.

This week, President Obama's budget projects a record deficit of $1.65 trillion this year, the largest budget deficit we have ever run as a proportion of GDP since World War II.

By Sept. 30, our national debt will swell to more than $15 trillion, or more than 100 percent of U.S. GDP. In other words, our debts will be bigger than our whole economy.

This is before the entitlement crisis hits, as we baby boomers (who had few children) start retiring and expecting to collect more benefits from taxes paid by fewer and fewer workers.

So Daniels is right to say: "We don't have a prayer of defeating the Red Threat of our generation without a long boom of almost unprecedented duration. Every other goal, however worthy, must be tested against and often subordinated to actions that spur the faster expansion of the private sector on which all else depends."

OK, but Daniels the mensch is also a bit of a schlemiel for repeating that the way to create this national unity is to ditch the social issues.

In truth, to call for a "truce" on the social issues is more distracting than unifying: Will the Supreme Court, which transformed abortion into a constitutional right, sign on? Will the left? Will President Obama?

If Daniels calls for a truce on gay marriage, will Judge Vaughn Walker or the Human Rights Campaign stand down?

A one-sided truce is not a truce; it is simply unilateral surrender.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour spoke after Daniels, generously praising him and other Republican governors by name. But in his own speech, Barbour showed how easy, how effortless it is to keep the main thing ... the main thing. Like Daniels, Barbour met his own state's fiscal crisis without raising taxes or running huge deficits, but he also boasted of passing pro-life legislation that led pro-life groups to dub Mississippi the "safest state in the country" for an unborn child.

Daniels is a serious man making a serious mistake. The "social issues" are not what hold the Republicans back from building a great coalition on fiscal issues.

The truth is that anyone who is strongly pro-abortion rights or pro-gay marriage is already a hardcore liberal Democrat.

As Daniel Oliver, a former chairman of the FTC, recently pointed out: "Daniels went to the CPAC and gave a terrific one-legged stool presidential campaign address. The minimum number of legs for a stool, however, as many people from the state of Indiana know -- Indiana has 154,000 milking cows -- is three."

For many at CPAC, Daniels' magnificent speech raised the question of seriousness in a different context: "Is Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels running for president?"

By stubbornly clinging to the silly and distracting idea of a truce on social issues, Daniels is distracting from what he needs to do to make the main thing happen.

And by his own accounting, that's a foolish thing for a mensch to do.

(Maggie Gallagher is the founder of the National Organization for Marriage and has been a syndicated columnist for 15 years.)