Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Mitch Daniels for President? Consider his leadership at OMB

It is over two years before the next Presidential election and there is no shortage of candidates being touted as to whom the Republicans should put forward to challenge incumbent President Obama. The current speculation is on Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels that one writer even goes so far as to ask, “Is this guy too good to be true?”

Whether or not you agree with the sentiment of that question depends on whether or not you are willing to consider Mr. Daniels’ tenure as the Director of the Office of Management and Budget and his incredibly inaccurate budgetary projections on the cost of the war in Iraq as well as the bureaucratic barriers the OMB placed in the way of those on the ground in Iraq when it was critical to move quickly to stabilize the nation following the invasion. The Bush administration downplayed the costs of the war – both in manpower and dollars – in order to sell the conflict to the American people as one to be quick with minimal cost and sacrifice. The failure to have the resources in place in a timely manner when there was a window of opportunity to stabilize the nation after the fall of the regime is one of the main reasons American taxpayers are still footing the bill for American troops stationed in Iraq eight years later. The costs of going to war that Mr. Daniels chose to overlook and downplay has become a contributing factor to our current national deficit.

George Packer reminds us of Mr. Daniels’ major contribution to this disaster:
Ross Douthat talks up the Presidential prospects of Mitch Daniels, governor of Indiana, in today’s Times. Daniels, in Douthat’s telling, has all the things that the Republican Party needs but is running away from: pragmatism, fiscal discipline, a head for social policy, common sense—just the man Douthat and Reihan Salam’s book “Grand New Party” called for. Other columnists have been touting Daniels as well. The fact that he’s five foot seven and automatically calls to mind the term “green eyeshade” could actually work in his favor. It’s possible to imagine a Republican challenge to Obama in 2012 organized around just this unlikely candidacy: What America needs isn’t a Nobel-prizewinning icon, it needs a plainspoken governor who knows how to balance a budget. It needs Calvin Coolidge, not Woodrow Wilson (that would make Glenn Beck happy).

Compared to the lineup of ideologues and demagogues who currently head the list of Republican hopefuls, Daniels sounds forthright and appealing. But as I was reading Douthat’s column, a small voice in the back of my head kept cautioning me: “Iraq. Mitch Daniels. Iraq.” So I went back and refreshed my memory. Daniels was Bush’s head of the Office of Management and Budget from 2001-2003 (what happened to the surplus inherited from Bill Clinton during those years is a separate story). He was responsible for forecasting the budget in the event of a war with Iraq. His number came in at fifty to sixty billion dollars. Compared to what some experts were forecasting, it was an astonishingly low figure. But even Daniels’s projection was too much for the Bush White House, which was intent on keeping unpleasant scenarios about the war out of the public eye, and Daniels’s own spokesman, Trent Duffy, was sent out to talk the number down. Lawrence Lindsey, Bush’s top economic adviser, had said the war could cost as much as two hundred billion, and Daniels had dismissed the figure as “very, very high.” As for the cost of rebuilding Iraq, by April of 2003—with the war already under way—O.M.B. had asked Congress for the paltry sum of 2.5 billion. By the end of last year, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had cost over a trillion dollars.

A lot of people underestimated the consequences of that war. What worries me is that Daniels’s projection was the budgetary equivalent of the Rumsfeld Pentagon’s failure to commit enough troops for the occupation. “Very, very high” reminds me of what Paul Wolfowitz said in response to General Eric Shinseki’s estimate that stabilizing Iraq would take several hundred thousand troops: he dismissed it as “wildly off the mark.” Wolfowitz and Daniels weren’t just mistaken. They were guaranteeing that the Administration wouldn’t be ready if things went wrong. They were contributing directly to the disaster that followed the fall of Saddam. And they were acting out of ideological conviction or bureaucratic loyalty rather than cold analytical judgment. In short, when the stakes were as high as possible, Daniels showed very little independence or common sense, the qualities that Douthat credits him with.

And Daniels persisted in his refusal to face reality even after the war began. In the spring and summer of 2003, with Baghdad looted and Iraq’s infrastructure disintegrating and Iraqis losing patience and the insurgency just beginning, around the Republican Palace, where the Americans of the Coalition Provisional Authority were trying to bring some order to Iraq, the name Mitch Daniels was often mentioned, without much love. C.P.A. officials faulted the O.M.B. man back in Washington for nickel-and-diming their every request for money. The Americans started out with just twenty-five thousand dollars to resurrect Iraq’s collapsed ministries, and even this meager sum came not as cash but in the form of grants that required several weeks for approval. American officials were desperate for money before the window of opportunity closed. One of them told me, “In post-conflict reconstruction, you need to have the ability to deliver the resources right away. People in a desperate situation need help. Boy, that’s a blindingly obvious insight. The next thing is that if you’re not giving them help, they’re going to go somewhere else.”

Many Iraqis went somewhere else. But Mitch Daniels had a budget forecast to meet. So he played an obscure but important part in the disaster of those early months in Iraq. The Republican Party won’t rebuild itself on a solid foundation in the future, as Ross Douthat wants to do, if it doesn’t take stock of its recent past.
You can read Packer's piece here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The piece by Mr. Packer could not be more invalid as this rebuttal claims http://spectator.org/blog/2010/03/02/did-mitch-daniels-fudge-the-ir

The Governor also rebutted those remarks on a C-span Q&A Start at the 18:30 mark. http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/286816-1

Lets not forget that estimate was about the WAR and not OCCUPATION. A budget is made only upon the request of the Executive and what constraints are given to those crunching the numbers.

As a former citizen of the state of Indiana I still consider Mr. Daniels MY MAN and MY GOVERNOR. He brought real reform with common sentience and often simple ideas.

This is not a conservative issue or a liberal issue its about making things work, and the only way many can aim to cut-down Gov. Daniels is to go after his subservient job at the OMB because his policy when he has been in charge has been sound.