---- — There is no statute of limitations on a vow, including the one Mitch Daniels made to Purdue University the day he was selected as president: No more partisan politics.
But in the game of separating what counts as playing politics and what simply amounts to attempting to expand the Purdue brand among an influential crowd, maybe it’s time to institute a new standard to Daniels’ presidency: “What if France Córdova had done that?” (Feel free to insert the names of Martin Jischke, Steven Beering or any of Daniels’ predecessors at Hovde Hall.)
Because, let’s face it. Every time Daniels gets caught in a room of former vice presidents, future presidential hopefuls or assorted think tankers — particularly of the Republican persuasion — he’s going to prompt a trip to the scales to weigh his actions. At this point, Purdue should simply accept that it’s going to happen with its president.
Daniels recently found himself, once again, forced to knock down the notion that he was dabbling in politics on the sly.
Did his participation in a private, off-the-record conference hosted in March by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, at a tony Georgia resort cross a line the former Republican Indiana governor drew when he took the job in West Lafayette? And what about his use of Purdue’s jet to get there and back?
Daniels’ explanation: This conference was no secret — at least among Washington insiders — and it was no campaign stop. He also said big Purdue donors and potential donors were on hand.
“I do everything to stay away from politics, as I said,” Daniels told the J&C. “I consider this a trip of use to Purdue. … I smuggle a Purdue commercial into every speech I make. I look for opportunities.”
Rationalizing here, one thing Daniels didn’t vow to do at Purdue was to give up hanging around political thinkers as a hobby. He’s obviously still in demand on that circuit, the way Córdova, a former chief scientist for NASA, was on space matters. (State politics might as well have been Daniels’ dissertation.)
But as Purdue president, Daniels hasn’t quite mastered the art of anticipating how joining a panel titled “How to Fix the States” during a private retreat for conservative policy makers might come across on campus — given his vow, not to mention given the campus expense of the jet.
Again, he seemed caught off guard and perturbed by questions back home after rubbing elbows with assorted senators and governors during a secluded weekend of political talk. Daniels called it a double standard applied to his work at Purdue, considering that, in this case, he saw other higher education officials in attendance.
Implied: What if France Córdova had done that? Would we even be having this conversation?
With Daniels, it’s a bit like watching a fantasy football fanatic who swears to his wife that he’ll behave at a wedding, only to get busted trying to sneak second quarter stats from a smartphone during the vows. Harmless, maybe. But it’s always going to earn a sharp elbow in the ribs for being untoward: “What are you doing?”
As distance grows between Daniels’ last time in the governor’s office and the end of his third full semester on campus, maybe it’s just time to recalibrate what that no-politics promise actually means.
By any measure, it would be difficult to prove that Daniels has been distracted from his job at Purdue. His work to contain student costs, expand the College of Engineering and other initiatives in his Purdue Moves agenda have been on point. Consider that news of his time with the think tank broke on a day when the first social media-driven Purdue Day of Giving generated $7.5 million in donations, accounting for 6,500 people — the sort of more modest donors the university figured felt lost amid the nonstop drive to land multimillion-dollar gifts. That’s a show of faith from alumni.
Still, Daniels continues to do himself no favors by neglecting to get ahead of the questions, making it clear to other university players what he’s doing when he heads to something such as the American Enterprise Institute. It might have been one thing to be there, trying to pin down policy makers to tell Purdue’s story and play up to university donors. But how does it come across when he’s actually speaking, presumably influencing the influencers? (What he said and who was listening isn’t clear, because the event was closed.) Daniels doesn’t necessarily see the issue when those two streams cross.
That blind spot leaves him to explain in hindsight what he considers to be political and what’s not — how his promise still holds.
His direct bosses, Purdue’s trustees, have had no complaints. They’ve been upfront that part of the allure of hiring Daniels was the very reason he keeps getting asked to speak before think tanks and the like. They see it as a bonus for Purdue. And they’ve been willing to OK his use of the jet, if it means Daniels can get back for business quickly. (That’s how it played out in October, when Daniels ultimately apologized for the perception of partisanship he gave by taking a private speaking gig at a fundraiser for a conservative think tank called the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis.)
But it’s telling that the response from one of Daniels’ biggest faculty supporters on campus, David Williams, the outgoing University Senate chairman, was so muted.
“My year as University Senate chair began with a controversy and seems to be ending with another,” Williams wrote in an email. “The Purdue faculty will have to sort this out, and I will be listening.”
What if France Córdova had done that? It’s not a perfect standard, but maybe it’s enough to give Daniels a chance to untie his hands from what he considers a higher standard, if not a double standard.
Then again, Córdova didn’t put herself in this position with a promise that seems open to interpretation. That’s a standard Daniels set for himself. Maybe he shouldn’t have.
Dave Bangert is a columnist for the Journal & Courier, Lafayette. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.