AT FIRST GLANCE, Mitch Daniels seems rather bland. His hair is straight and tidy. His suits are understated but tasteful. He speaks slowly and in quiet tones. He gently declines to answer questions about the failings of other politicians. And he seems genuinely mortified when he accidentally refers to his interviewer as Meghan.
But Daniels' record as governor of Indiana could best be described as radical. During his governorship, which ran from 2005 to 2013, he decertified all government employee unions on his first day in office, managed to defeat teachers unions in a pitched battle for school choice, imposed tough spending austerity and raised taxes to balance the books, and inspired the Democrats in Indiana's legislature to walk out at the beginning of his second term over a right-to-work bill. In his previous gig as the head of George H.W. Bush's Office of Management and Budget, his nickname was "the Blade."
In his regular Washington Post column, Daniels seems to delight in triggering his readers. He has advocated relocating all the major federal agencies away from Washington, D.C., defended the morality of genetically modified foods, and most recently called for the abolition of the "tasteless, classless spectacle" of the State of the Union.
He also rides a motorcycle and was indicted for marijuana possession as an undergrad at Princeton.
In 2010, he told The Weekly Standard that the next president "would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues" in the face of a mounting fiscal crisis. Between the kerfuffle caused by those remarks and his desire for privacy about an unorthodox relationship history--he and his wife married each other twice, with a break in between--he ended up stepping back from politics.
Since 2013, Daniels has been running Purdue University. If you talk to one of the people on his team, they refer to him as "President Daniels." On the phone, it's all too easy to imagine he's calling from an alternate dimension where he actually ran for president of the United States--as many of his associates and the national media believed he would in 2012--and won. And after a wide-ranging conversation in January, it's hard not to think that might have been a better, freer, calmer timeline than our own.
In January, Daniels spoke with Reason's Katherine Mangu-Ward about free speech, the power of unions, and whether it's already too late to avert a full-fledged American economic collapse.
Reason: These days, our national politics can sometimes feel like it's oriented around student debt and educational availability. You're trying some unusual solutions to these problems as president of Purdue University, including not raising tuition over the last seven years.
Daniels: The tuition freeze began as a one-year time-out, a gesture to indicate sensitivity to what was plainly--even in 2012 or '13--a growing burden. Often when people ask for an explanation, I'll tell them what we didn't do. They want to know what kind of voodoo we practiced and I say: Here, let me allay all your suspicions. We didn't cheapen the faculty. We had one of the highest ratios in the country of tenure-track faculty. We didn't downshift to so-called contingent or temporary or part-time teaching. We didn't get any more money from the state. In fact, slightly less. We didn't dip into the reserves--they've been growing every year. We didn't resort to a sleight of hand through other fees in lieu of tuition. There haven't been any of those either. So the way I usually frame it is that, if a place like ours can do those things and run in the black on an operating annual basis while investing, while maintaining quality, why would you raise tuition? It ought to be the last resort, not the first instinct.
Sometimes we solve the equation for zero. Zero meaning zero increase in tuition. If you start with that premise--that's our objective, that's our...