Mitch Daniels -- Getting Whiggy

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Mitch Daniels, nearing the end of two successful terms as governor of Indiana, is now exploring a run for the presidency in 2012. If he does run, he will run on an agenda different from that of most other Republicans. How do we know? Because he has said so, outlining a vision for the 21st century that recalls the great economic successes of America in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In June, Daniels told The Washington Post, “Building excellent public infrastructure is an appropriate role for government.” Such public construction, he explained, “enables the private sector to thrive.” Yes, the private sector. And then he used a term unfamiliar to most Americans: “Maybe this makes me more of a Whig.”

A what? To modern ears, the word “whig,” so similar to “wig,” might sound artificial, even affected. Yet its origins are basically populist: “Whig” is short for “Whiggamor,” the cattle drovers of old Scotland. That manly word was adopted by the 17th century rebels who opposed absolute monarchy in Great Britain, demanding instead a constitutional monarch, subservient to the people’s legislative house--to Parliament. The Whigs prevailed, and the Whig Party was born: it became a permanent opponent of centralized authority, while taking on new causes, such as the abolition of slavery.

Not surprisingly, a century later, many of the American Revolutionaries called themselves Whigs, and in the 19th century, the American Whig Party elected two presidents, both war heroes, William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor.

So who where the American Whigs, and what did they stand for? The signature Whig policy was “internal improvements,” what we now call infrastructure. In the early 19th century, Whigs argued for roads, and then canals, projects needed to link the infant republic together, politically and economically. These infrastructure achievements were huge successes; within three years of the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, that manmade waterway was carrying more commercial traffic than the entire Mississippi River. It was the Erie Canal that made New York the Empire State--the first gateway to the West, connecting the East Coast to the Great Lakes.

Soon, Whigs embraced the new technology of railroads, realizing the impact they were having in Britain. The first US railroad was built in Massachusetts in 1826, and the railroad boom continued for the rest of the century; along the way, the Big Three of an industrial economy--manufacturing, mining, and large-scale agriculture capable of feeding huge urban populations--flourished all across the continent.

The greatest Whig was Henry Clay of Kentucky, who held just about every top post in government--except the presidency. In addition to advocating for American industry, Clay was a cautious opponent of slavery--some say too cautious, but the Compromise of 1850 tilted America toward an anti-slavery policy, even as it preserved the Union for another decade. Clay died in 1852, and the Whig Party disintegrated, fatally split over the slavery issue; many young Whigs, such as Abraham Lincoln, in turn joined the Republican Party.

Perhaps the finest compliment that could be paid to Clay comes from that ex-Whig, the Sixteenth President. As the historian Allen C. Guelzo records, Lincoln declared Clay to be his “beau ideal of a statesman,” his “favorite of all the great men of the Nation”; even late in his presidency, Lincoln proudly described himself as an “old-line Henry Clay Whig.”

Thanks to the Whigs, Republicans, and other leaders in the Clay-Lincoln tradition, America grew into the leading industrial power by the turn of the 20th century; in addition to providing mass-produced comfort for Americans at home, our arsenal of democracy prevailed in three world wars (One, Two, and Cold).

Indeed, within the last century, new kinds of infrastructure were created, ranging from the telephone network, to the interstate highways, to the Internet. These vast endeavors were all pro-growth projects, nurtured by the public sector, then turned loose to the private sector, for the benefit of all Americans. Clay called this “The American System,” and it worked for the first two centuries of our national existence.

And the same idea could work, too, in the 21st century--if we wanted it to. Imagine the positive economic impact, for example, if a new generation of safe nuclear power plants provided free electricity to factories and start-ups in the heartland. Now that would be economic stimulus.

So what happened to these America-strengthening policies? What happened to the idea of a government that could actually get things done? We might start by lamenting that the Clay-Lincoln idea of energetic government was taken over by the idea of hulking nanny-state government; countries prosper from infrastructure, but they are impoverished by runaway social spending.

Moreover, the Clay-Lincoln tradition has currently been surrounded by three sniping enemies: first, Green zealots, who wish to rusticate America down to the energy intensivity of a Third World country, thereby reversing the First-World gains of the Industrial Revolution; second, Wall Street financiers, who, in the name of “free trade,” have made billions by financing the outsourcing of whole supply chains of production to China; and third, libertarian purists, who instinctively recoil at any sort of business-government collaboration, no matter how many jobs it might create.

These three groups might not always be fond of each other--although the Greens and Wall Street seem to have struck a partial alliance, based on shared goals such as “cap and trade”--but they have all worked together to de-industrialize the US. And they have been aided, of course, by corrupt unions, trial lawyers, and NIMBYs.

By now, as Governor Daniels suggests, we could use some Whig economic revitalization. As he told The New York Times on Wednesday, “The nation really needs to rebuild.

To be sure, Daniels is not alone in his views. Many governors, in particular, share elements of his practical-minded can-do spirit, although few can claim to be as effective in office.

Moreover, Daniels has had the daring, and the economic perspective, actually to invoke the “W” word--Whig. Great leaders always have the ability--and the humility--to put themselves in a constructive historical context. So does that make Daniels a great leader? It’s too soon to tell. All we know for sure is that he has been a great governor. And always, as we now know, a Whig at heart.

James P. Pinkerton is a writer, Fox News contributor and the editor/founder of SeriousMedicineStrategy.