“Simply put, I find myself caught between two duties. I love my country; I love my family more.”
Thus did Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels remove himself from consideration for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, breaking the hearts of Mitt Romney haters everywhere. Seldom have eighteen words launched so much ethical analysis, or what passes for it in the media.
Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, for example, applauded the Governor’s priorities while accusing Daniels of “throwing his wife under the bus.” Her point was that Daniels did not have to make it so crystal clear that his wife vetoed his own desire to run, that he should have simply said that he declined, and leave it at that. Indeed, that would have been chivalrous and kind. For a public servant and politician, however, it would also have been dishonest and wrong. Just as the public needs to know why a public figure is running for president (Gingrich: Because he’s deluded….Trump: Because its good for his TV ratings…), it needs to know why a public figure is not.
Daniels doesn’t have to run for president. It’s a free country. But in a time of national crisis, when there is a widespread belief that strong leadership is critical, that the United States is at a crucial moment in its history, and it is either drifting, ignoring significant threats to its stability or rapidly deteriorating, a genuine statesman has an ethical obligation to place country first.
Many in the Republican Party and conservative movement were looking to Daniels as a leader who could transcend a motley field of potential challengers to an eminently challengeable president. Gov. Daniels’ duty was to give them an answer, and an honest one, both because being honest in statements to the public is a good habit to promote, and also because it tells us something important about Mitch Daniels.
What the answer told us was that Mitch Daniels lacks the essential priorities and willingness to sacrifice personally and professionally that are essential traits of national leadership. If he wants to put his family first, that may make him a great father and husband, but it doesn’t make him a great American leader. If the desires of their wives had been the determining factor, many U.S. Presidents, including George Washington, U.S. Grant, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, might never have answered their country’s call. They believed that the well-being of millions of fellow citizens had to take precedence over the natural desire for privacy, normal work hours, personal safety and the avoidance of constant scrutiny and criticism. I understand and respect Mitch Daniels’ decision, but I don’t admire it, and as with the similar decision of Colin Powell to reject a presidential quest in deference to his wife, it is neatly self-validating: if a man is unwilling to put one’s country first at a time of crisis, then he isn’t qualified to lead the United States anyway.
Good to know, Governor. We shall remember that the next time your wife has a mid-life crisis and runs off with an old boyfriend, and you decide you can run for president. The decision to lead a nation must depend on the nation’s needs, not yours, and not your wife’s. We are grateful for your honesty, however. Now we know.
As for Cheri Daniels, I see no reason why she should be able to avoid the consequences of her actions, and no obligation for the Governor to shield her from fair accountability. She had already precipitated the incident that reflected poorly on both her and, arguably, her husband, when earlier in their marriage she had abandoned Daniels and her children to start a new life with an old flame. ( I’d say Daniels more than fulfilled his minimum chivalry requirements by issuing a statement asserting that “The notion that Cheri ever did or would ‘abandon’ her girls or parental duty is the reverse of the truth.” When a mother leaves her family in Indiana while she goes to live with another man in California, that’s abandonment. What else would Daniels call it? A vacation? An elaborate practical joke? ) When the flame flamed out, as they are wont to do, Daniels took his wayward ex- back and re-married her, simultaneously marking him as a prince and a patsy. Now, justifiably afraid of how the press and public will treat the episode if a presidential candidacy made the couple’s travails an issue, Cheri used her veto to stop her husband’s political rise. Her selfish indulgence of an unscratched itch for a former love set in motion a series of events that began with the betrayal of her family, and ended in affecting the field for the 2012 presidential election.
Unethical decisions have the tendency to cause unexpected harm. If the fate of Mitch Daniels’ presidential aspirations teaches us that lesson, he will not have withdrawn in vain.