WASHINGTON - The nation's bloated deficit presents a threat to the American project greater than any it has ever seen before, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels said tonight at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. And it is up to conservatives to unite the country in a battle against that menace, he said.
"We cannot deter it. We cannot negotiate with it any more than an iceburg or a great white," Daniels said. "I refer to the debt - the new red menace, this time consisting of ink."
Daniels delivered his remarks during the Ronald Reagan banquet at CPAC. Around 11,000 conservatives gathered in the nation's capital for the conservative event, which is considered a platform for possible presidential contenders. Daniels, who is term-limited out of the governor's office this year, has generated presidential buzz by keeping his state in relatively sound fiscal condition with moves like reducing the number of state workers and raising sales taxes.
He touted his record in Indiana, including the expansion of school vouchers, and suggested bold reforms to reduce the federal debt, such as establishing a flat tax or chopping through the "regulatory rainforest" inhibiting business. "Today's EPA should be renamed the 'Employment Prevent Agency," he said.
He also proposed changes to Social Security and Medicare; for instance, he suggested establishing a Medicare voucher system - or "Medicare 2.0."
"The true enemies of Social Security and Medicare are those who defend an imploding status quo," he said.
Abolishing the federal debt is "our generational assignment," Daniels said. And while "every conflict has its draft dodgers," he said this fight would require everyone on the front lines.
"If a foreign power advanced an army to the border of our nation, everyone in this room would drop everything and look for a way to help," he said. "That is what those of us here and every possible ally ... are now called to do."
In order to build support for the conservative agenda to fight debt, Daniels said the Republican party must maintain broad appeal.
"Purity and martyrdom is for suicide bombers," he said. "I, for one, have no interest in standing in the wreckage of our republic and saying, 'I told you so.' We have learned in Indiana big change requires big majorities."
Building those majorities, he said, requires addressing the "stagnation of the middle class" and enabling upward mobility for all Americans so "that those without much money have a greater chance to earn some."
He also called for more thoughtful rhetoric and urged conservatives to "distinguish carefully sketicism about big government from contempt for all government."
"I submit as we ask Americans to join us on a boldy different course, it would help if they liked us just a bit," he said.