Sunday, October 02, 2011

The Lessons From Michigan: Don't Ignore the Radical Shift to the Right

Rick Haglund asked the magical "what if" question today...

Would Michigan look much different today if a low-tax, small-government Republican had led the state instead of Democrat Granholm?

... and you're going to get a very long post out of it, one that has been building for a couple of weeks now. Settle in. And consider this my book review.

Watching these recent interviews with Governor Granholm as she talks about her book "A Governor's Story: The Fight for Jobs and America's Economic Future", it never ceases to amaze me how the Michigan media has developed a stunning case of amnesia when they ask something to the effect of, "Now that you know the answers to the problems, why didn't you do it when you were in office?" Smack-your-forehead-kind-of-stupid question, isn't it? But they ask it anyway.

Obviously, she had to learn from experience first. But the media also seems to want to forget she had a Republican legislature under threat from Betsy DeVos in her first term. And it's hard to believe they can't remember what just happened with Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop in the last two years of her tenure. Now, does anyone honestly think that the Republicans would have just blithely gone along with the things that Granholm wanted to do (which would be partnering with our businesses, and investing in our state and citizens), whatever the lessons she learned, and however they could have been applied?

Of course not. She had to fight tooth-and-nail to save what she could over the years, and - pay attention, because this is the important part - it was the Republicans that moved ever-rightward towards deeper and deeper cuts to government, and they became increasingly to totally inflexible in their position on revenue as they did so. The obstruction you now see in DC was first applied here, and no one has yet figured out the answer to this tactic of "no". Granholm tends to stay away from the partisan issue in these interviews, but it really does need to be addressed if we want to compare the lessons we learned here to what is happening at the national level now.

One glaring example of this phenomena we can easily point to in Michigan is the subject of college scholarships, particularly the Merit/Promise Scholarship. One thing that always puzzled me was that Granholm wanted to cut the Merit in her first budget from $2500 down to $500, very odd for someone who had championed the importance of education in her campaign. As her book explained though, the Merit Scholarship was being used as a bargaining chip that helped save the DMC and other things, precisely because she knew that the Republicans wanted to save the scholarship, and would move to do so.

Seems foreign to us now, doesn't it. Republicans fighting to save "spending" that benefited regular citizens. But it's true. They really did that. Here's Peter Luke, June 15, 2003:

Republican lawmakers, who along with then-Gov. John Engler created the Merit Award in 1999, made the scholarship their top budget priority. Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema , R-Wyoming, said last winter he was drawing a line in the sand on the issue. In the past couple of weeks, a whole bunch of Democrats crossed over and joined him.

Top priority. Lines in the sand for education spending. Well, OK then, if you insist. Not only that, check out the other things the DNews listed as Republican "wins" in that first budget negotiation. From July 21, 2003:

* 17 road-expansion projects, including a half-dozen in Metro Detroit, at cost of $250 million.
* A minimum of $4,000 per state college student extra money for Oakland, Saginaw Valley State, Grand Valley State and Central Michigan universities.
* $39 million for laptop computers for sixth-graders.
* Preserved school-funding formula that favors growing suburban districts.
* Penalties for bad drivers to provide $70 million.

Looks like spending. And fee increases, that, back in the day, weren't considered tax increases. As wins. For Republicans.

Bottom line: Republicans cared about funding education, and were willing to put up a fight for it in 2003. It was a priority.

Compare and contrast that time and that sentiment to the fight to save the Promise Scholarship in 2009. A mere six years later, not only did the Republicans insist on slashing it from the budget, they cut many other scholarships too - and adamantly refused to consider taxes or fee increases, or even shifting money around to cover the cuts to any education spending. And, in a very bizarre display of partisan incivility, Senator Bishop made overt threats that the summer's "angry mobs" over national health care might come after the Governor if she or the Democrats even made a move towards raising revenue.

Stop and think about that for a minute. In 2003, Republicans drew a "line in the sand" to save the scholarship. By 2009, they insisted it be cut, they were threatening possible "mob action" if spending to fund priorities was even attempted. And to top it all off, after the budget was passed, they threatened to take the Governor to court if she tried to find money for the scholarship by way of line-item veto. They fought to keep the Promise Scholarship eliminated. That, along with other deep cuts to our citizens, cuts that would have been incomprehensible to Ken Sikkema and the Republicans of the prior legislature.

So, who was the problem here? Who has radically changed during this time?

With that in mind, let's go back to Haglund's original question - but this time, let's pair Mike Bishop with Governor Dick DeVos and a feckless Democratic House led by Andy Dillon. We can only guess as to how a Governor DeVos would have dealt with a melt-down of the American auto industry, but given the entire family's extreme right-wing economic leanings and funding efforts that have favored Cato, Heritage, the Mackinac Center, and other like-minded organizations and politicians, you can probably safely place your bets that it would have looked a little something like this:

After deep and radical cuts in a 2007 DeVos budget (because Dick would have never considered a tax increase to fill that hole), the national economy starts to slide, the auto industry starts to fail. The arguments start in Congress. DeVos sides with the Shelbys and Corkers of the world. He sides with other Republican governors on making a show of refusing stimulus money. He fights with the White House, instead of trying to partner with it. It's a Michigan where he didn't lobby, he didn't lift a finger to help the Big Three or their suppliers, figuring this was the chance to break the UAW, and other unions after that, once and for all. A world where the advanced batteries and green jobs never came here, because he didn't believe in renewable energy, and wouldn't have made the effort to recruit them. All that stimulus money and future investment goes to Strickland in Ohio instead. A world where DeVos used the Crash of '08 and subsequent budget shortfall to reshape this state as his Mackinac Center Dream Come True.

Who would have stopped him? The Democrats? Hardly.

So yes, you can hazard a guess the state would have looked a lot different than it does now. We would have had fewer jobs, a less diverse economy, more people in poverty, devastated public services and schools, and maybe even would have lost Chrysler. It's really hard to know how it would have all played out, but I believe that Dick DeVos would have been Rick Scott, but worse. And maybe we would have thrown him out in '10, but if the rest of the national scene had remained the same, we wouldn't have had the opportunity to partner with DC again until after a change in Congress in '12. Major opportunities that are now flourishing in this state, that were made possible by the Recovery Act and recruiting by Governor Granholm, would have been lost to us forever.

The critics will always find something to criticize, but Governor Granholm was the right person for this period of our history, someone who would fight for the state and all its people, someone who lobbied for our new opportunities, and I shudder to think what "might have been" had she not been here. As Haglund said, "there is no evidence that Granholm was anything but an ethical governor who was sincere in her effort to improve the lives of Michigan’s citizens". That's exactly what we needed.

And let's not overlook this next important item, because it applies to the national level now. She might have been able to do more, if not for a Democratic Party and its supporters that tend to scatter to the winds when it comes to taking a stand, for either their stated party priorities, or their own people in leadership. It's becoming a obvious problem, one that has grown in my time, one that President Obama increasingly must deal with in Congress. In Peter Luke's final column today, he nails it:

If only the Democrats had been as committed to their preferred investments as the Republicans are to theirs. Cities are deeply stressed after a decade of being short-changed by Lansing. Transportation spending stagnated as the unemployment rate in the construction industry nears 50 percent. School district finances are arguably in the worst overall shape since the advent of Proposal A. University tuition has doubled in 10 years. For two decades now, the prevailing argument has held that if you put more money into the economy through tax reduction, good things will happen. Dismissed has been the argument that if you put more money into the economy through, let’s face it, tax increases -- to bolster modern infrastructure, public education and adequate public safety -- good things can happen as well.

Done smartly and strategically, it’s possible to do both by modernizing government and how it’s financed.

Whenever anyone says "both sides do it", take a step back and look at who is saying "no" to compromise, because it wasn't Governor Granholm then, and it's not President Obama now. And it's not the "hippies" on the left either, it's the conservatives and cowards in our own party. We saw it with Dillon and his cabal here, we are seeing it in Congress with Nelson and Landrieu and the like when they refuse to be team players on major legislation from the President. They undermine the entire party, and therefore the entire country.

You know what's happening in Michigan today, now that Snyder and the Republicans are making cuts that go deeper than we ever dreamed anyone would make. Don't let it happen on the national level. We have a good foundation here, thanks to our previous governor. We will be OK. We have a good foundation in the nation, thanks to the President. But it's starting to show cracks now, thanks to Republican obstruction on the economy, and they are threatening to grow deeper - which will again hurt our state.

It's worth fighting to at least keep what we have. Remember that.

And get your friends out to vote next year. You're never going to get a perfect Democratic Party or leader, you may even disagree with a lot of the things they do, but learn the lessons from Michigan: You can have investment and a chance for a better future, or you can have destruction of all the things that everyday citizens need to live a better life - because that is what this radically different Republican Party has in mind.

The choice should be clear. We have a lot to teach the nation. Let's hope they listen.