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Published: Monday, 12/8/2008

Michigan GOP's dilemma

THE national Republican Party could take a useful lesson from something that may be going on in Michigan: A move back to the political center.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Michigan had two progressive Republican governors, George Romney and William Milliken, who were fiscal conservatives but who steered their parties toward forceful stands in favor of civil rights and human rights. The result was that they were elected, again and again, even in the years of the Lyndon Johnson and Watergate Democratic landslides.

Since then, however, those running the party have repudiated that tradition, and tacked far to the right. Bill Milliken, still alive and well, has been treated largely as a pariah by members of his own party, and ridiculed for the bridges he tried to build to minority communities. But they've gradually noticed that Mr. Romney and Mr. Milliken did something else that today's conservatives can't: win elections.

The last time a GOP presidential candidate carried Michigan, which used to be a true swing state, the World Wide Web had yet to be invented. Republicans have won precisely one U.S. Senate election in Michigan since Watergate, and that was in the once-in-a-century GOP landslide of 1994. Two years ago, a lackluster Democratic governor won a landslide over a right-wing challenger who outspent her, three to one. This year, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin beat his hapless GOP challenger by 1.4 million votes. John McCain, once a hero in Michigan before his lurch to the right, made the worst showing of any Republican since Barry Goldwater, and the party was murdered in state legislative, university trustee, and school board races.

Paul Welday was one of the young hardliners who a quarter-century ago helped wrest control of the GOP from the Milliken moderates. Now, seeking to become the next state party chair, he appears to have had a revelation: Last week, he said it was time to "reach out" to former Governor Milliken. "He built bridges to urban areas we haven't been able to connect with since," Mr. Welday said on a Lansing public TV program. What an amazing idea! Maybe if you reach out to a broader audience, you might actually be competitive in general elections.

It isn't yet clear whether Mr. Welday can win his party's nod; he is being challenged by other contenders, including Monroe County native Norman Shinkle. Nor is it clear how much he would really do to move his party to the center.

But it is clear what will happen if the GOP remains a mostly negative force devoted to fighting taxes on the wealthy, stirring outdated fears, and offering little vision of a positive future. It will mostly continue to lose.



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