Mitch Daniels: I'm probably not ready to debate Obama on foreign policy

Bill Kristol wrote on Saturday that he’s heard from sources it’s “likely” Daniels will run. That seemed plausible given Barbour’s decision to stay out and his decision on Friday to sign the Indiana bill defunding Planned Parenthood. If he’s running, though, why would he say something as silly as this?

His foreign-policy details are TBD. Daniels said that “it cannot be illegitimate to ask” if some of the country’s military commitments should be unwound, but he has not yet reached any conclusions about which should be—or, at least, any he is willing to share. On Afghanistan he refuses to second-guess the decisions of the president, to whose greater access to information he defers. On Libya he says only that he has not seen the case for intervention made. One gets the impression of someone who is much more cautious about foreign intervention than Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty, but also cautious about saying so. He was asked if he were ready to debate President Obama on foreign policy. “Probably not.” (He is candid.)

Those words were uttered roughly 36 hours after Obama announced to the world that Bin Laden had finally been liquidated. On Monday, the day after the raid, Jennifer Rubin contacted Daniels’s office for reaction to Bin Laden’s killing and received … a no-comment. (Daniels later praised the operation in an appearance on Fox & Friends.) If he wins the nomination, Democrats will pound him with the “probably not” quote in the general election as evidence of dangerous inexperience; as it is, Romney and Pawlenty will pound him with it in the primaries as evidence that he’s a one-trick fiscally conservative pony who doesn’t have the sort of killer instinct needed to beat Obama if nominated. That’ll resonate with plenty of Republicans who still grumble about McCain having gone too easy on The One three years ago and who remember how the election turned when a single issue that favored the Democrats suddenly leaped to the front of the national agenda. Then it was the financial crisis, next year it could be foreign policy, notwithstanding the enduring importance of the economic recovery. If Daniels is the nominee and Iran does something nutty next September, how does he explain away saying that he wasn’t ready to debate Obama on foreign policy a little more than a year earlier?

This is the sort of thing that, had Palin said it, would be cited by the George Wills of the world as proof of her alleged “intellectual incuriosity” and as evidence that she should never, ever be nominated. E.g., “Why isn’t she ready to debate Obama? Doesn’t she care enough about foreign policy to study it?” But since it’s Daniels, no doubt it’ll be applauded as refreshingly candid and a demonstration of charming Hoosier modesty. I keep coming back to two questions. First, if this guy cares about fiscal issues to the exclusion of virtually everything else, why does he want to be president? Why not angle for an appointment as Treasury secretary or Fed chief instead, where he can concentrate full-time on the debt? I’m pretty sure that if a major deficit reduction package lands on the president’s desk, Pawlenty or Romney or Palin or Huckabee or whoever else will sign it too. And second, are admissions like this and the “social truce” comment some sort of calculated strategy or just evidence of terrible political instincts? I want to believe there’s some amazingly shrewd angle to this that I’m missing (“straight talk!”), but he hasn’t even declared yet and I’m already at the point of wondering what the next flub will be. Any theories?