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Will Trump's victory redefine the GOP? Mitch Daniels is skeptical.

Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels on the GOP’s future after Trump.

Mitch Daniels Speaks At American Enterprise Institute Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Not long ago, former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels was a sleeper pick to win the Republican presidential nomination. He was courted to run in 2012 and, as recently as this summer, was being prodded by conservative luminaries like George Will, who declared in a June column that Daniels is “the president America needs.”

There were good reasons for this. As governor of Indiana, Daniels developed a reputation as a practical and competent leader. Several prominent conservative governors have foundered in recent years (e.g., Bobby Jindal in Louisiana and Sam Brownback in Kansas), but Daniels thrived.

Against the backdrop of a recession, he balanced the budget without raising taxes, left the state with a $500 million surplus, and created a massive school-choice program for low-income students.

For liberals, Daniels’s tenure was less than thrilling, but by conservative standards he was undeniably a success.

In the end, though, he decided against running. A big reason, according to a 2011 Politico report, was resistance from his family, his wife in particular, who did not want to deal with the media scrutiny a presidential campaign involves.

Today, he serves as president of Purdue University, a position he has held since 2012.

I spoke with Daniels yesterday morning. It was a sprawling conversation about Donald Trump, the future of the Republican Party, the perils of one-party rule in Washington, the student debt crisis, and why he didn’t run for president.

Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Sean Illing

One of the more consequential results of this election is that Republicans now have near-total control over the government, with the presidency and both chambers of Congress.

If you were Paul Ryan, what are two or three things you’d go all in on legislatively?

Mitch Daniels

I don't think I should start handing out advice to anyone, but I'll say a couple things. At some point in these four years, I earnestly hope that people in both parties will get serious about the debt problems that we're about to dump on future generations. There's no argument about this — it's basic arithmetic. These aren't matters of opinion, and the problem has grown and grown.

The health care bill that we have is clearly collapsing on itself, and people in both parties have acknowledged that, so a reset there is probably an early focus.

I suppose the main thing is, and it won't be entirely for the legislature for the address, but this country desperately needs an economy that grows faster than 1 or 2 percent. This is one reason, I think, certainly not the only reason, for the Trump surprise.

This won't be easy, but it's something the country badly needs.

Sean Illing

Speaking of the economy, how disorienting is it to see an anti-trade protectionist become the next Republican president?

Mitch Daniels

Apparently, we were going to get one regardless of who won. This was such a strong theme in the Democratic primaries, after all. Let's wait and see what really happens here. The issues I mentioned previously are more important to trying to get on a better growth track than which trade agreements are or aren't initial to the next couple years.

Sean Illing

Trump seems to have drawn a lot of white working-class voters to his side by opposing unpopular trade deals like NAFTA or the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Assuming you support those deals, how would you pitch them to rural voters in Pennsylvania or Michigan or Wisconsin?

Mitch Daniels

I’d say there are alternative explanations. The economic concern is very real: Eight years of a lousy economy and a comparatively weak recovery from a recession will do that. People are looking for explanations, and you have to articulate a vision of change that appears promising to people.

The other thing I’d say that's missing is this: Economic pessimism was clearly a driver of this, but another one is the strong sense among a lot of people that they were tired of being treated with contempt and looked down upon, and I'm not talking about the Clinton campaign in particular, but the broader political establishment.

People feel that their values and life choices are suddenly considered backward and uneducated, and there was a recoil to that. A starting point for people who weren't successful in this election is to at least consider this.

Sean Illing

I’ve heard this point of view, it’s the J.D. Vance position, and I understand. But here’s the thing: There’s an element of the Republican base that, while I wouldn’t use the words “backward” or “stupid,” I would say they are racist and nativist and reactionary.

Trump empowered this element of the base, he normalized it, and I think we absolutely have to reckon with that. And I think we can do that without painting all Trump voters or Republicans as uneducated bigots.

Mitch Daniels

Sure, and I think every time a party gets thumped badly, how they react is important. We ultimately need two competitive parties that can compete for the center as they once did. And if you step back from this moment, it's clear the Democratic Party is down, and I hope that they'll reflect a bit about that and perhaps try to empathize with some of the voters they lost.

Sean Illing

As a current university president, I have to ask you about the student debt problem, and college affordability more generally. As it stands, middle-class Americans are being priced out of college, or are forced to take on mountains of debt in order to attend.

Will that change anytime soon?

Mitch Daniels

I think it's an urgent problem. At Purdue, we've tried to deal with it directly. We're in the fourth year of a five-year tuition freeze. We also cut the costs of room and board and books. It's less expensive to go to our school than it was four years ago, and it'll be less expensive next year.

Student debt

Sean Illing

But Purdue isn’t representative of what’s happening nationally, right?

Mitch Daniels

No, and I'm surprised by that. I really thought, incorrectly, that the market was about to demand more restraint on the part of universities in terms of cost increases, but it was much less than I expected.

Students who graduate with large amounts of debt struggle mightily. They're less likely to start a family, they're less likely to own a home, they're less likely to start a business. So there are serious consequences to forcing students to go into debt.

Sean Illing

Do you think we have too many people in college? By that I mean there are a lot of people who are going into debt to earn useless degrees with no applicability in the labor market. Would they be better served with job training or vocational programs?

Mitch Daniels

Some certainly would. We don't necessarily have too many people in college, but we do have too many people in college in exactly the setting you just described: studying things with little or no rigor, things with little or no applicability in the world of work that has evolved, and being charged too much for it.

Many of these people could have found a better option that would better serve them after school. And there are careers emerging all the times, fulfilling and well-paying careers, that don't require the traditional college diploma.

There are many technological fields like IT, for example, in which a diploma is far less important than what you know, what you can actually do, and it doesn't matter where or how you learned the skills.

Sean Illing

Let’s circle back to politics. How surprised were you by Trump’s victory?

Mitch Daniels

Very much so. It completed my perfect season of being wrong about almost everything all year long. I don't think I'm alone in that. Look, I was surprised just because while we've all learned to be skeptical about public opinion survey methodologies, toward the end data seemed so consistent and so clear that one had to believe it.

What we saw is that there's a big swath of America that, in various ways, the elites or the political class in this country didn't know existed, and now they do.

Sean Illing

What do you make of this bipartisan revolt against the establishment? Did you see it coming?

Mitch Daniels

I think we all saw elements of it in the extremity of the primary seasons on both sides. In addition to Trump, a serious contender on the Democratic side who had never really been a Democrat and was always on the fringe of the party made a serious run.

So it was clear that there was enormous dissatisfaction, but that it would ultimately be manifested this way was very much a surprise to me.

Sean Illing

Give the populist mood of the country, do you think Bernie Sanders would’ve defeated Trump in a general election?

Mitch Daniels

It's very hard to tell. Mr. Trump told us very little about what he thinks or what he would do. Sanders, on the other hand, told us in detail, and, honestly, it was enormously impractical and might have scared the pants off a lot of America. But I can't tell you how that might have turned out.

We certainly could not have had an outcome more surprising than this, though.

Sean Illing

Does Trump’s nomination and election fundamentally change the GOP, both philosophically and politically?

Mitch Daniels

I don't know. It was a very successful night for the party nationally, and the vast majority of those people still believe in a set of center-right principles that we're all familiar with. So it remains to be seen whether the obviously very different set of ideas, if you can call them that, that Mr. Trump ran on will change anyone's mind or whether they'll have to be assimilated.

Presumably, he's going to want to be a successful president, and to do that he's going to have to work with people. And many of the people with whom he'll have to work are not going to see things the way he does.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Presidential candidate Donald Trump.
John Sommers II/Getty Images

Sean Illing

Evan McMullin, the conservative candidate who challenged Trump in Utah, said after Trump’s victory that “the Republican Party can no longer be considered the home for conservatives.”

Do you agree?

Mitch Daniels

I don't think we can say that yet. Again, you have 52 senators, well over 200 congresspeople, and lots of governors who, as far as I can tell, ran on the sort of platform, such as it was, that Mr. Trump campaigned on.

Most folks would agree that he campaigned mainly as a matter of personality and vague thematics, and so it's not at all clear to me that those millions who came out to vote for him were voting for any specific policy.

Sean Illing

Well, whatever the reason, they have a considerable amount of power now. What do you think they’ll do with it?

Mitch Daniels

I'm not sure, but it's certainly one of the moments that is equal parts opportunity and danger. The dangers are obvious. If they produce poor results, they'll pay a price. They're in a similar position to what Obama and his majorities were in years ago.

They'll have to do better than that, and it depends on how Trump decides to work with these allies. Again, there are few people in Congress who stood for exactly the same things he did, but there's every reason to work with them if he wants to accomplish anything.

Sean Illing

Your name was floated around as a possible candidate for president this year, especially among the Republican intelligentsia. I imagine you would have had a lot of support.

Why didn’t you run?

Mitch Daniels

I seriously looked at it when many people I respected urged me to do it in 2012. Having decided not to do it, and having accepted the opportunity to work here at Purdue, it just didn't enter my mine this time.

I will say, though, that I don't think I would've been a particularly effective candidate in the environment that evolved in 2016. Maybe in 2012 I would've been stronger, but things were much different then. But not this year, not in this atmosphere.

Sean Illing

I believe, and a lot of people do as well, that our process is broken. Campaigns are too long, the process is too invasive, the discourse is too frivolous. I have no idea why decent people would subject themselves to it, frankly.

How do we fix this?

Mitch Daniels

That's exactly right. It's really a savage process, and most people have to think twice about subjecting themselves and their family to it.

What would make it better? I think what we've seen recently has caused a lot of thoughtful people to have a whole new appreciation for the system that we tore up and left behind a few decades ago, namely a more deliberative system in which the parties had more to say about the process. I applaud the Democrats’ use of superdelegates, which preserves a modicum of this.

Sean Illing

The idea being that doing so would produce less polarizing candidates?

Mitch Daniels

Exactly. As we've become more polarized, this becomes more important, because when you let primaries decide the outcome, as they now do, you empower the extremists on both sides, as these are the people who vote disproportionately in the primaries.

Trump, for example, was nominated by a series of minorities that weren't necessarily representative of the broader Republican Party. So I think a system that restores some authority to the actual parties and conventions would be preferable.

Sean Illing

Have we seen the last of candidate Daniels?

Mitch Daniels

No, I've got no plans. I've always believed in the citizen-service idea. I never expected to run for public office myself. When I did, it was a marvelous opportunity. I'd like to think we left a much better state behind.

But there's more to life than politics, and what I'm doing now is just as rewarding as public service.