MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. — There’s little doubt that if a straw poll had been taken for governor of Michigan at last week’s Mackinac Policy Conference, Rick Snyder would have been re-elected by a landslide.
And if the media had been excluded, he might have gotten the support of more than 90 percent of those who paid to get into the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce’s annual gathering of Michigan’s business, political, and lobbying communities.
The entire event had an air of celebration about it. Mr. Snyder, who made a fortune in business before he turned to politics, is the most business-oriented governor the state has had since at least World War II.
For most corporate interests, what’s not to like about a governor who has slashed state business taxes by more than half and who battles his own party in the Legislature to get roads, bridges, and other infrastructure improvements that businesses need?
He talks their language. “Relentless positive action!” he told the closing session of the conference. He added that his role model was Henry Ford, who kept trying after his first two companies failed.
Sounding for all the world like a motivational speaker sent to fire up a sluggish sales force, he told the audience: “We are the comeback state in the United States.” He added: “This is not the time to be complacent or content. This is about a culture change. We have to be forward looking, not backward looking.”
At times, he sounded slightly like a parody of the title character of Sinclair Lewis’ 1920s-era novel Babbitt, as when he said: “What’s the role of government? Government exists to give you great customer service!”
About Detroit, he said: “Are we giving great customer service to the neighborhoods? We have work to do there.”
Mere hours before he gave his closing pep talk, the governor was sucker-punched when PulteGroup Inc., a home builder based in the Detroit area since the 1950s, announced it was moving its corporate headquarters to the fast-growing Atlanta market.
By the time he had to face reporters about this, Mr. Snyder was reasonably cheerful. He said the way to avoid such setbacks was growth. “We need to grow,” he said. “Let’s grow the state.”
Still, the governor was clearly embarrassed. Why Pulte did not wait until after the conference to make the announcement isn’t clear.
But at least two attendees were happy about anything that humiliated the governor. One was Mark Schauer, a former one-term U.S. representative from Battle Creek who is the Democratic Party’s anointed choice for governor next year. The other is Lon Johnson, the young, energetic, and numbers-crunching new Michigan Democratic Party chairman.
“We can win this race,” Mr. Johnson told me confidently as we shared a ferry at the end of the conference. “They will have money, but this is a Democratic state and a lot of voters who thought they were voting for a moderate who was above partisan politics have buyer’s remorse.”
Possibly, but beating any incumbent is a struggle. Since Michigan’s present constitution was ratified in 1963, no governor has ever been denied a second term — or even failed to win by a margin larger than the one by which he or she was originally elected.
Yet it is hard to see the governor who rammed through right-to-work legislation topping the 58 percent of the vote he got in the GOP landslide year of 2010.
Beyond that, there is a struggle for the soul of the GOP, in Michigan as well as nationally.
There are the Rick Snyders — pro-business, not beloved by labor unions — who favor pragmatic policies meant to help business and the state’s bottom line.
Then there are the right-wing ideologues among state lawmakers, who oppose anything, no matter how sensible, if it requires tax revenue or is supported by the federal government in general and President Obama in particular.
Whether by accident or design, every one of the national headline speakers imported for the Mackinac conference stressed the practical over the ideological.
MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a former U.S. representative from Florida, praised Republican governors and denounced Republican figures in Congress such as U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas as selfish egomaniacs.
Controversial education reformer Michelle Rhee urged conservatives to get behind programs that demand more of students and to adopt the national Common Core curriculum standards.
“People are saying, we don’t like it when the federal government tells us what to do,” Ms. Rhee said. “I say, you really shouldn’t like the fact that China [in education] is kicking our butts right now. Get over the fact that you feel bad about the federal government.”
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush also praised the Common Core standards, noting they were an initiative of the National Governors Association, not the federal government.
In a meeting with GOP legislators, his education message reportedly fell on deaf ears. Former Michigan House member Jack Hoogendyk sneered in an email: “The Bush family seems to think big government knows better than the local school board.”
The battle over Common Core, like the battles over fixing roads and expanding Medicaid, is part of a broader struggle over whether ruling state Republicans will buy into policies that will enable Michigan to compete economically.
The outcome may go a long way toward determining how well Republicans will compete politically in the future.
Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org