SOFT BIGOTRY, LOW EXPECTATIONS…. The New Yorker‘s Hendrik Hertzberg noted yesterday that Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) was in Manhattan on Tuesday — at a “Gilded Age Upper East Side mansion,” no less — and had lunch with 13 journo-pundits, including Peggy Noonan, Ramesh Ponnuru, Michael Kinsley, Josh Marshall, Mark Halperin, and George Stephanopoulos. It went fairly well.

Afterward, the informal consensus of the leftish contingent was summed up in this exchange:

“If we have to have a Republican…”

“…this one seems like he’d be better than the others.”

It’s remarkable how common this is. Dana Milbank noted that Daniels was in D.C. yesterday, delivering a speech on education policy, and coming across as the Republicans’ “alternative to scary.”

As best as I can tell, Dana Goldstein was one of the few — if not, the only — media professional to actually scrutinize the substance of what Daniels had to say about education policy. Her conclusion: his agenda is “somewhat misguided.”

But at this point, given Daniels’ apparent interest in the presidential race, substantive critiques are taking a back seat to electoral considerations. For now, that means political observers sizing him up as a national contender.

What’s striking, though, is how far standards have fallen. Mitch Daniels is presented as the thinking voter’s Republican because (a) he speaks in complete sentences; (b) right or wrong, he seems to take policy more seriously than Romney, Pawlenty, & Co.; (c) he’s the “non-threatening” Republican who doesn’t behave like a “public clown“; and (d) one can listen to his speeches without reaching for the Maalox bottle.

Is now a good time to note that the bar should be set much higher?

Mitch Daniels claims to care primarily about fiscal issues, but his record as Bush’s budget director is utterly humiliating. He claims to have no use for hot-button social issues and prefers a culture war “truce,” but just announced his support to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood clinics in Indiana, leaving untold thousands of Hoosier families without access to preventive health care.

Maybe none of this matters. Republican primary voters probably won’t care much that Daniels is loved by D.C. pundits and was deemed acceptably charming at a luncheon on the Upper East Side. Indeed, just the opposite is true — the GOP base seems likely to resent him for this sort of thing.

But it still amazes me that much of the establishment is willing to perceive Daniels as The Great Republican Hope, is large part because the existing field is so wretched.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.