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Mitch Daniels returns

Former Governor Mitch Daniels may have taken a "vow of political celibacy" after he resigned, but he still could play a role in the GOP Civil War.
/ Source: MSNBC TV

Former Governor Mitch Daniels may have taken a "vow of political celibacy" after he resigned, but he still could play a role in the GOP Civil War.

Mitch Daniels shocked the political world last year when he follow up his second term as Indiana governor with a new job as president of Purdue University. With that came a "vow of political celibacy" that put Daniels -- who many Republicans urged to run for president in 2012 -- on the partisan sidelines. 

But his vow isn't quite as ironclad as it seems.

Daniels spoke at a Christian Science Monitor Breakfast in Washington Wednesday, an event loadded with national political reporters. And judging by his remarks, Daniels sounds like he wants to play a role in the civil war ravaging his party.

Daniels laid out a vision for the GOP that echoed rhetoric from blue-state governors like Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Rick Snyder.  These Republicans -- while hardly moderates on most issues -- are positioning themselves as a reasonable alternative to the tea party extremism blamed for shutting down the government.

Take the two governor's races that will be decided next week in Virginia and New Jersey.

Daniels, who famously called for a "truce" on social issues in 2010 to focus on the deficit, had "nothing additive" to say about Virginia's contest, where Ken Cuccinelli is trailing Terry McAuliffe in numerous polls. One prominent issue in the race has been Cuccinelli's strong support for anti-sodomy laws. 

Chris Christie, though? Love that guy!

"I think I'm within my own bounds to say Chris Christie, his apparent success proves people will reward decisive action and truth telling and that people are prepared to look beyond maybe their own party affiliations or even ideological predispositions where they see an instance of effective action in the public interest," he said. "I think plainly that's what's going on when a guy like Governor Chris Christie is that successful in a state like the one he lives in."

Daniels' "truce" talk sparked a backlash among the evangelical wing of the party at the time and some observers saw it as a factor in his decision not to run for president in 2012. But it certainly looks like a prescient remark today not only in Virginia, but in Daniels' own state. Last year, Richard Muordock ousted Senator Richard Lugar in the Republican primary then crashed in the general election over comments attributing rape-induced pregnancy to God's will.

Daniels said Wednesday he stands by his position. 

"I think even at the time that I talked about it, a lot more people agreed with it then you might have thought," he said. "As in many many debates, decibels do not equal numbers." 

It's not just social issues where he stands out from the modern GOP. Although quite conservative on reducing the deficit, which he calls "the transcendent issue of our time," he said he was disappointed in Republican presidential candidates' universal refusal to entertain trading revenue for enitlement cuts. 

"We got a really serious problem worse than some folks have faced up to and people should not be dogmatic on either side about whats in the discussion," Daniels said. 

Daniels may not have been the strongest candidate had he run in 2012 -- he's not exactly known to set crowds on fire -- but he was an important symbolic figure for many Republicans who feared the party was ceding its brand to more divisive firebrands.

Some of the same Republicans are now highlighting Christie -- who, by the way, just tacitly legalized gay marriage in his state -- as evidence the party needs to cultivate less partisan leaders who can appeal to the center. On the other side, Tea Party stars like Ted Cruz raised their profile in the shutdown and want to lash their leaders even more closely to the hardcore base. The battle lines between these emerging camps are growing clearer by the day. 

Daniels could play a role in boosting his chosen side come 2016 by campaigning for candidates that fit the bill or directing donors their way. But it's worth considering whether he might jump in himself. 

In his remarks on Wednesday, Daniels dropped a number of lines that, taken together, might form the basis of a coherent campaign. 

In talking about his role at Purdue, he brought up a number policy areas that affect young voters, one of the demographics' the GOP's struggled with the most in recent years.  While he said his students likely weren't likely to focus on the national political debate much until after college, "at some stage they'll have to,"

"This generation has a right to be as upset with its elders as any in history," he said.

Daniels boasted that one of his first steps was a two-year tuition freeze to help counteract the ongoing explosion of student debt. In a turn of phrase reminiscent Occupy Wall Street protests, he said watching schools one-up each other with higher tuitions every year was "sort of like watching CEO pay ratchet itself up." 

Another issue he tied to young people: the Affordable Care Act's restrictions on raising premiums due to age, a provision he said "soaks the young to benefit their elders." He linked his comments about addressing the debt, by far his biggest passion, to saving kids today from future fiscal struggles as well.

Daniels is hardly the only Republican to talk up these issues or link them to the next generation, but his varied experience as OMB head under George W. Bush, as governor, and now as university president, could lend him a unique credibility in the Republican field. It wouldn't be hard to imagine him running on a youth-oriented platform focused on education reform and finding a bipartisan deal to slash entitlement spending in the long term. Think Paul Ryan's, minus the House GOP's baggage and more open to compromise. 

At the very least, nothing about Daniels' rhetoric suggests his non-partisan Ivory Tower role is a permanent condition. Expect to hear more from him as the presidential primaries draw closer.