As he prepares to leave office this week, Gov. Mitch Daniels can look with pride over a much-improved state, the positive changes mostly a result of the policies he has pursued for the last eight years.
His record can be judged by the many big changes he won: lease of the toll road, approval of daylight saving time, property tax reform, an education voucher system, BMV overhaul. When he came into office, the state was in desperate financial shape. He leaves us with a $500 million budget surplus and $2 billion in reserves.
But even more than specific accomplishments, Daniels deserves praise for adjusting Hoosier attitudes and perhaps even transforming the political culture. In a state where the status quo is sacred, Daniels managed to shepherd Indiana through some momentous leaps of faith into the unknown. In the process, Hoosiers became more familiar with the idea of change than ever in their history. And if they didn’t exactly embrace it with enthusiasm, they at least stopped being scared to death of it.
Trying something new invites failure as well as success, and Daniels taught us something about how to handle that, too. Some of his bold experiments, such as privatization of the welfare system, were big flops at first. But his attitude was: Admit your mistakes, try to learn from them, then move on, without forgetting that real progress requires the celebration of possibilities. If it’s determined a government program or service is valuable, it must not be assumed that the only way to provide it is the way it has always been provided.
This may strike some as an odd philosophy for a conservative Republican to hold. Aren’t conservatives just penny-pinching, backward-looking reactionaries?
No, not at all. If you can understand true conservatism – the kind with roots going all the way back to Edmund Burke in the 18th century – you can understand Daniels’ approach. The conservative, Burke taught, does not reflexively defend tradition and blindly resist change to it. He merely warned us to hold on to those things that have endured – the values that work, the ideas that succeed. If we do that, we can change and change rationally, always adding the new to the firm foundation we have created. That is the true value of tradition.
Daniels kept the best of Indiana tradition and added something new on top of it. That leaves incoming Gov. Mike Pence the best of foundations to hold up his new ideas.
(Next: the Pence years.)