Comment

Michigan's lesson: Confrontation beats cooperation

The Washington PostDecember 14, 2012 

— Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has – or had – a quirky slogan to describe his governing philosophy: “relentless positive action.”

His approach, as I heard him describe it at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, was to find practical solutions and avoid unnecessary partisan division. Relentless positive action, he kept repeating. The mantra sounded more Dale Carnegie than Karl Rove, but it was goofily charming.

Not anymore. Now it seems more like a sad commentary on the hopelessly fractured state of our politics.

Snyder, a venture capitalist, is the nation’s only CPA/governor, a man whose Twitter handle is “onetoughnerd” and who likes to describe constituents as “customers.”

The 2010 gubernatorial race was Snyder’s first foray into electoral politics. In the year of the tea party, Snyder presented himself as a moderate technocrat. He refused to sign a no-tax pledge, calling it a gimmick. He won with 58 percent of the vote in a traditionally Democratic state.

“We need to put party and geography aside and come together as Michiganders to reinvent Michigan,” Snyder said in his inaugural address. “We need to stop being divisive and become inclusive. We have spent too much time fighting among ourselves and become our own worst enemy.”

New chief executives are prone to these sorts of pronouncements, and Snyder’s tenure hasn’t been all bipartisan sweetness and light. He tangled with Democrats over cuts to education and to jobless benefits while businesses enjoyed tax breaks. He pushed through emergency management legislation that let financially troubled cities and school districts change collective bargaining agreements.

But Snyder has demonstrated a capacity to surprise, and to break from party orthodoxy. He vetoed a voter ID law. He supported the auto bailout.

Instead of railing against the new health care law, he has worked – again, despite legislative opposition – to create new insurance exchanges.

Meanwhile, the state’s budget showed a surplus. Its double-digit unemployment rate dropped. Two liberal recall efforts fizzled. From the other side, Michigan tea party activists mocked Snyder as RINO Rick, a Republican In Name Only.

So what to make of Snyder’s precipitous move this week to sign right-to-work legislation that he previously described as too divisive?

Snyder has grounds to make the you-started-it-first and I-told-you-so arguments. The United Auto Workers union helped light the right-to-work spark with a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot last month to enshrine collective bargaining rights for public- and private-sector workers and pre-empt right-to-work legislation. It lost, badly.

“I asked them not to go forward,” Snyder told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “And the reasons I said is, ‘You are going to start a very divisive discussion regarding collective bargaining first, but it also will get into right-to-work. It will create a big stir about right-to-work in addition to collective bargaining.”


Yes, but. For more than a year, Snyder had said he didn’t want to deal with the right-to-work issue. Suddenly, he announced last week that the topic was “on the agenda.” Then he said he’d sign the measure.

Why the about-face? “This right-to-work discussion just continued to escalate and was becoming very divisive,” Snyder said. “So the way I viewed it is, it’s on the table. It’s a hot issue. Let’s show some leadership.”

The word Orwellian comes to mind. The right way to show leadership on a “divisive issue” is to take a step that further inflames matters? To pass legislation that isn’t debated through the normal legislative process? Written in a way that will make it difficult to overturn by referendum? Rushed through a lame-duck Legislature about to lose five Republican House members, and with them, most likely, enough votes to pass the bill next year?

Necessary, Snyder claims, for the state’s economic development, even though Michigan’s largest industry, automobile manufacturers, remained studiously neutral?

There is, I am sorry to say, a larger lesson here, one that resonates sadly as Washington heads toward the “fiscal cliff.” The middle ground is difficult to occupy for long. Political forces – on both sides – foment confrontation over cooperation. We may aspire to relentless positive action but find ourselves consigned, instead, to ceaseless partisan bickering.

Washington Post Writers Group

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