Four years ago, Mitch Daniels turned himself into a kind of Indiana folk hero by climbing aboard an RV and crisscrossing the state. Up and down, back and forth he went, stopping in one little burg after another for a tenderloin or a piece of pie and some conversation with the locals about what was going on — or wasn’t — in their neck o’ the woods.

It was a smart campaign strategy, providing plenty of great small town visuals. But it was also a practical effort on Daniels’ part to get a feel for a state he probably didn’t know very well. He’d been in Washington cooking the books for President Bush and, before that, he’d enjoyed the rarefied air in an executive suite at Eli Lilly. Daniels’ travels around the state amounted to a crash course — Hoosier 101.

I’ve often wondered what it must have been like in the RV at the end of a day in Gas City or Medaryville. Surely there were times when Mitch, eyes widening with the enormity of the task he’d set himself, shook his head and whispered, “Oh, shit.”

Or words to that effect.  

Unfortunately, the same might be said now, as we find ourselves on the threshold of another election, this time pitting Daniels against the Democratic challenger Jill Long Thompson and habitual Libertarian complainer Andy Horning. The problems facing Indiana are enormous as ever. Making matters worse has been these politicians’ failure to use this dire situation as an opportunity to offer truly competing visions about the state’s future course.

Daniels has done his best to provide plenty of bait. From leasing the Northern Indiana toll road to championing the expansion of industrial-scale hog farming, Daniels’ administration has provided one provocation after another. He was right to want to shake Indiana up after 16 years of Democratic sleepwalking under Bayh, O’Bannon and Kernan. But his alternatives have been short-sighted and reckless. Daniels’ seeming readiness to sell what’s left of the state’s natural legacy — from its lakeshore to its forests — to corporate interests has been appalling, epitomizing the retrograde belief that economic development and environmental protection are an either/or proposition. And his insistence on equating the state’s transportation needs with more highways, the I-69 boondoggle, in particular, will almost certainly insure that Indiana remains a second-class citizen relative to other states.

But Jill Long Thompson hasn’t taken the fight to Mitch Daniels on any of these issues. She’s complained about the toll road lease — then said there’s probably nothing she can do about it. And she’s as in favor of tearing up the countryside to build I-69 as Daniels. On the environment, she says her administration will “enforce existing state and federal law” — which has been the Daniels mantra. Indeed, Daniels has boasted that his approach to regulatory enforcement has been tougher than tough — and we’ve seen where that’s gotten us. Long Thompson likes to refer to her having grown up on a farm, but she’s had nothing to say about how to help guide the state toward a more sustainable form of agriculture. Though she’s been an outspoken critic of Daniels’ privatization efforts, she’s been vague about what she would do to revitalize the Indiana economy.

As for Andy Horning … As usual, Horning’s approach has been to run against government itself, calling it “the agent of oppression, slavery, genocide and war.” Horning would have us think that he, like some ghostbuster armed with a pocket copy of the Constitution, can kill the beast. What he steadfastly refuses to face is the fact that, for better and worse, the government is us.

Which is the only shred of good news that we can take away from this otherwise dyspeptic gubernatorial campaign. Time and again over the past four years, when Mitch Daniels tried his best to sell off a wildlife refuge, or let an oil company have its way with Lake Michigan, the public showed a remarkable ability to organize and make him back off. It hasn’t always worked, but these local flurries of progressive activism have revealed the outlines of what could turn out to be a new sense of place for a state that has often seemed lost. It’s also a reminder that, like it or not, Indiana’s future is in our hands — no matter who gets the most votes Nov. 4.

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