Mitch Daniels doesn’t want the buck to stop with him

MITCH DANIELS DOESN’T WANT THE BUCK TO STOP WITH HIM…. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) appears likely to run for president in 2012, and to hear him tell it, his biggest concern and his principal issue is deficit reduction. This week, he went so far as to say “the American experiment is in mortal peril” because of the debt and the situation is “more frightening than even the Soviet nuclear threat.”

And every time I see Daniels talk like this — which is often — I have the exact same question: wasn’t he the guy who led Bush’s budget office?

Ten years ago, when George W. Bush signed his first massive tax-cut bill, he thanked three people in particular for helping make it happen — Dick Cheney, then-Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, and his director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mitch Daniels.

It was that tax-cut package that helped eliminate the massive surplus Bush and Daniels had inherited from the Clinton administration, and begin a sea of red ink that, ironically, Daniels is now concerned about.

To his credit, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer brought up this inconvenient record with the governor yesterday.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) — on the short list of contenders for the GOP’s presidential nomination in 2012 — has an explanation for why the deficit exploded under George W. Bush. And it’s not the massive Bush tax cuts, which Daniels helped shepherd as Bush’s director of the OMB.

“The nation went into a deficit then because the bubble burst and we had a recession,” Daniels told CNN [yesterday] afternoon. “It wouldn’t have mattered what policies you tried to implement, we were going to have a great big reversal.”

For a guy who claims to consider the budget his top concern, Daniels doesn’t seem to know much about his signature issue.

It’s true that there was a fairly mild recession in 2001, which began shortly after Bush took office. That necessarily had a negative impact on surplus Clinton left behind.

But if Daniels seriously believes the massive tax breaks, which disproportionately benefited the wealthy, didn’t play a huge role in creating the budget mess, he has no idea what he’s talking about.

In theory, this should be a deal-breaker for Daniels’ presidential ambitions. The base, at least for now, wants a Republican with credibility on deficit reduction and fiscal responsibility, and Daniels was the first budget director for the most fiscally irresponsible administration in American history. Bush added $5 trillion to the debt in just eight years, and Mitch Daniels was the one who helped set him on his way.

If he’s going to spin his way out of this, Daniels will have to do better than blaming the dot-com bubble.