Even his strongest critics don’t deny that “big stuff” has been achieved. Daniels was arguably the most ambitious, effective conservative governor in America. He managed to ride a recession that bucked other leaders — balancing a series of budgets without increasing taxes. He left Indiana with a $500 million yearly surplus and $2 billion in reserves while awarding taxpayers a substantial refund on his way out the door. During eight years in office, he shed 6,800 state government jobs — 19 percent of the total — while improving public services. He passed legislation ending mandatory union dues. He created the largest school-choice program for low-income parents in the country. He privatized a toll road and the state lottery and busted cable monopolies. …

Daniels is just the sort of leader most needed in a Republican revival: an upbeat, tolerant, conviction politician. A surprisingly effective, RV-cruising populist. And the most compelling GOP critic of the red menace. “I stubbornly adhere to the view,” he told me, “that Americans can be talked to like adults about the deficit problem. They can be told the pure arithmetical facts of life — the injustice that current policies are doing to the poor, the young and minorities.”

Returning quietly to private life after public service is honorable and admirable. But this doesn’t change one fact. The best Democratic politician in America is about to take his oath as president of the United States. The best Republican politician will soon be president of Purdue.