Mitch Daniels talks about institutions a lot, but he’s also taken a vow that backs up his belief in their importance: He refuses to directly talk about politics.
Daniels, president of Purdue University since 2013, was the Republican governor of Indiana for two terms and came very close to running for president in 2012. Many Republicans at the time thought he was their best possible candidate.
There are plenty of opportunities for Daniels to weigh in on national politics. The man who followed him into the Indiana governorship, Mike Pence, is now vice president of the United States, ironic given that many Hoosiers, such as Indianapolis Star columnist Matthew Tully, view Daniels as “a big-ideas conservative leader who kept his focus on the issues most important to Indiana.”
But Daniels said he has not commented on politics since 2013 because he is an “employee of a large public university.”
“I don’t think it’s appropriate. We don’t take stances as a university,” Daniels said on the latest episode of “The Long Game,” a Yahoo News podcast.
Daniels’s approach seems inspired by the late political scientist Hugh Heclo, who encouraged individuals to approach choices not with “How can I get what I want?” but with “the duty-laden question that asks, ‘What expectations and conduct are appropriate to my position and the choices I might make?’”
Or, as Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer said recently, “Not everything that is thought has to be said.”
Daniels was nonetheless quoted talking about politics recently by Bloomberg’s Al Hunt, saying he feels politically “homeless.” But in his “Long Game” interview, Daniels pivoted, saying that he was merely describing to Hunt how some Republicans feel.
“I chalk that up to carelessness on my part. I did not mean to make any personal statement, which I’ve been studious about not doing now for six years,” Daniels said.
He did make a subtle criticism of the Republican Party when he noted that in American politics “we shouldn’t let skepticism about, let’s say, big government turn into contempt for all government.”
That was part of Daniels’s broader critique of a “troubling … ignorance of our institutions: where they came from, why they’re important, how they’re supposed to operate” and “a willingness to demand results whether or not they came through legitimate processes.”
Daniels focused his recent commencement address to the Purdue graduating class on the perils of tribalism, and he exhorted the students to “live your personal and vocational lives without becoming trapped in any echo chamber, drifting into any tribe, to not merely sympathize but to actively empathize with your fellow citizens and the values they hold dear.”
On “The Long Game,” Daniels explained why he told the students that “tribes always gravitate toward tyrants.”
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“Essentially every tribe winds up with a usually charismatic leader or leader by brute force,” he said. “As groups become more and more closed off, they tend to become more monolithic in their thinking and more I guess suspicious of others and receptive to the leadership of the strongest, who [is] most likely to protect them or lead to their domination.”
Healthy institutions, Daniels said, are vital to preventing political violence between those who have disagreements. But he also rejected the notion that those who call for trust in the democratic process and for patience in enacting change are telling the least powerful that their concerns are not worthy.
“Our institutions are more important for the protection of those who are the yet-to-haves in society and those who are not in the most successful situations,” Daniels said. “Free speech, for instance, has always protected the minority and the outsiders. That’s who it’s for. And the powerful … are the ones who can force their way or buy their way, bully their way around institutions. The institutions that are properly built and properly operated are there for the equal protection of all.”
Daniels also said he does not regret declining to run for president in 2012. “I don’t know what good that would [have done],” he said.
Many Republicans urged Daniels to run, but he and his wife, Cheri, did not want to go through the painful process of revisiting their past marital problems, which included divorce and Cheri’s marriage to another man, but ended with Mitch and Cheri reuniting and marrying a second time. They have four daughters together.
Rejecting a presidential campaign “was the right decision for our family, and the five women in the family have always been happy about it, and that’s reason enough for me to be.”
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