Making Somebody Angry
January 28, 2011
Once in the long distant past, then-Governor William Milliken was holding a press conference that dealt with an issue now no longer terribly significant. One point the Republican governor was making in the press conference was his difficulty in getting an issue through the Republican-controlled Senate.
Booth Newspapers reporter Bill Kulsea, who first began reporting on Michigan politics when Cadillac founded an outpost at the deTroit of the river, focused on one Senate member in particular and asked Mr. Milliken: “Governor, why can’t you get him on board? He’s a Republican.”
Is that a question we will hear again in the administration of Governor Rick Snyder? And if so, how does he work around the potential problem that portends? There is a very good chance he will face a defining instance on this point soon, and if he does it could be on the question of the earned income tax credit.
Well, political leadership means being willing to have your friends shake their heads in disappointment and be hated by everyone else most of the time, so no time like the present for Mr. Snyder to get ready for the flocks of boo birds dropping commentary on his head.
The lad has been governor not quite a month. So far his popularity ratings are high with the public. Special interests grimly know he will propose cuts in his budget, now projected to be released on February 17, but feel he is a practical centrist looking for ways to make the state better, not an ideologue committed to just a point of view. That gives them hope.
And Republicans have so far at least been publicly ecstatic over Mr. Snyder.
But there are some rumblings among Republicans, especially the more rightwing wing of the bird, worried that Mr. Snyder is showing his true “Democratic” roots and failing to assert a more aggressively conservative vision that follows a moralistic small-government basis.
Leading up to his inaugural, a number of observers, most of them admittedly Democrats, suspected Mr. Snyder would have more trouble with Republicans in the legislature than Democrats. Mr. Snyder spent his successful campaign carefully not attacking his opponents — other than a symbolic wet noodle lash or two at his Democratic rival, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero — or the opposing party. He specifically put the clamps on his campaign spokespeople who wanted to rip various new bodily orifices in his opponents. It is reported by several close to his administration that he had some trouble locating a press secretary, because too many of those who were interested in the post believe heartily in the virtues of cojone chopping.
And on election night the fiercely partisan crowd gathered in Cadillac’s grownup outpost of Detroit to celebrate Mr. Snyder’s win was clearly restive at his deliberately moderate, positive and inclusive statement.
Don’t forget that conservatives, such as former Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, were alarmed in the summer when suddenly Mr. Snyder pulled up close in the polls. Even after the primary, when most Republicans quickly rallied round the winning Mr. Snyder, there were still the halt and hesitant. So, a more conservative challenge was mounted, and repulsed, to Mr. Snyder’s choice of now Lt. Governor Brian Calley.
Make no mistake, Republicans are supportive of Mr. Snyder. House Appropriations Chair Rep. Chuck Moss (R-Birmingham) has said in public appearances that he and his caucus will have Mr. Snyder’s back.
But the restive remain restless.
Just minutes after Mr. Snyder finished his inaugural State of the State Address a week ago, a top Republican strategist gave the speech a “C-minus” grade. How’s come, why’s that, he was asked. A Democrat could have given that speech, he sniffed.
Remember the big tent theory of Republicanism? Well, one of the top conservative blogs in the state, RightMichigan, has slashed a hole in the canvas and escaped, as far as Mr. Snyder is concerned.
Contributors to the blog have said Mr. Snyder has drunk the “donkey dew.” The acronym RINO (Republican in name only) has been uttered. They urge conservative Republicans to stick to their principles rather than back Mr. Snyder — labeled “Jenny-II,” — just because he is the Republican standard bearer.
And one said Mr. Snyder’s true priority is not in reinventing the state but in remaining popular with the public. “He has expressed more concern over bipartisan sensitivity than implementing the measures required to reverse our state’s steady decline,” the contributor said.
To date, there has been no open breach between Mr. Snyder and the GOP conservatives. Perhaps there won’t be. Perhaps. Not likely, but perhaps.
Mr. Snyder opposed the decision by the Michigan Civil Service Commission to allow for same-sex benefits on health insurance for state workers. That is in keeping with most conservatives.
But he did so on the basis of cost and not Leviticus. Would that meet muster with those conservatives for whom the proposal should be opposed for both reasons, but probably mostly because of Leviticus? At this point it is probably moot.
The real issue that could define his stance in the early days of the session, and define who and how his allies act, is something else.
House Republicans have called for examining all tax credits and repealing those they don’t consider necessary. Top of that list is the earned income tax credit. (And it is here one has to bring up the fact that the left is completely baffled as to why Michigan Republicans have such a hate for the EITC. Ronald Reagan, who every conservative will say was the best president since, well, probably George Washington, called the federal EITC the greatest anti-poverty tool ever. It only goes to people who are working. Okay, it is a targeted tax break, but nonetheless it is a tax break. Questions of potential abuse can be dealt with individually. And then there is the whole GOP argument about the cost of the credit to the budget. Yeah, says the left, aren’t you guys the ones ready to cut the budget to meet revenues? Yet for more than a decade the state has gurgled with GOP gaggling over the EITC, and they have yet to adequately explain why this credit is distasteful.) The left has now staked preserving the EITC as the first big fight of the 96th Michigan Legislature.
Not yet heard from on the issue is Mr. Snyder.
From an accounting standpoint, and Mr. Snyder is an accountant, there are arguments for repealing the credit. There are probably also arguments for keeping it, from an accounting standpoint (it may be a direct hit to revenues but an indirect inducement to revenues down the economic stream). There are certainly policy reasons to keep the credit. There are policy arguments to repeal it, one supposes.
Of all the issues to come out early in the 2011 political season, and of all the issues that will come, the EITC is potentially an early sign. One expects Mr. Snyder will largely split the difference over the years on issues. He will certainly be more “Republican” on taxes and spending overall, but he has so far seemed more “Democratic” on the questions of urban renewal, promoting higher education and a healthier public.
He has already definitely gone Republican on the issue of item pricing, for example. Yet even that favored Democratic issue does not strike a chord in the same way as the EITC does.
For the earned income tax credit is definitively geared towards the poor. More specifically, it is geared to the working poor, to those who are making the effort to raise themselves up. Item pricing affects cans of caviar as much as it does franks and beans, so both the wealthy and the welfare recipient can benefit or suffer equally by its repeal.
The EITC is qualitatively different. The EITC is also something that can attract both sides, at least in argument. Democrats, who theoretically never met a tax they didn’t like, want the low-income as free from taxes as possible. Republicans want low taxes for all, but most also recognize the low-income have been hit harder than the rich in this economy.
How Mr. Snyder decides on the question could be an early indication of which party he actually will have more trouble with as he leads the state. Stand with the supporters of the EITC, who are uniformly Democrats, and his Republican cred will be questioned even more ferociously. Conservative legislators may start testing him more aggressively.
Stand with the Republicans and Mr. Snyder’s support among Democrats and social liberals will fall dramatically. Getting their support for proposals will be more difficult.
There are ways of finessing the issue; for example, cutting but not eliminating the EITC, though that would simply delay the confrontation issue Mr. Snyder will one day have to face.
To be a good governor, Mr. Snyder will have to be willing to disappoint his friends in the name of what he sees as good policy. Right now he has a lot of friends, so he will have to be willing to make lots of people angry. One suspects he knows that intellectually. He has not yet had to face that practically.
To Mr. Kulsea’s question, lo those many years ago, Mr. Milliken was confident he would get the legislator on his side. In the end, Mr. Milliken did win on the issue, though it is doubtful that particular legislator backed him. He was able to win over enough other lawmakers with a lot of personal jawboning.
Mr. Snyder will likely have to do the same, and maybe very soon.