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Weekly Update
John Lindstrom
Gongwer News Service

Snyder Trips
into Political Pothole

October 28, 2011

Surely, one can avoid Halloween imagery when speaking of Governor Rick Snyder’s sudden set of troubles? Surely, one need not drag out the hackneyed, overused comparisons to trick or treating when considering the sudden complications the governor finds himself in?

Or given that Mr. Snyder unveiled his major infrastructure proposal this week, surely one can avoid referring to him hitting a pothole or a speedbump or a guardrail?

Of course one could, but it is expected to use the tired, overworked and hackneyed when, candidly, they apply so well. Because Mr. Snyder has been tricked badly with a major pothole, and sadly for him the problems tripping him into the hole were at least partly of his own making.

Because it is not just that the legislature has exploded the proposal for a new bridge between Canada and the U.S., it is in the way the administration failed to take control of the issue at some critical points. If it had done so, it might have staved off the massive embarrassment it has suffered.

It might also have prevented the current political situation where it appears no new bridge between Detroit and Canada will be built, at least with state oversight, not even the bridge wanted by the Moroun family, the owners of the Ambassador Bridge. In fact, the situation now raises the question of whether a bridge may be built that neither the state nor the Morouns would necessarily want.

It would be unfair to suggest Mr. Snyder, still smarting from this rejection, purposely dodged a critical proposal in his infrastructure message. Yet there is a striking lapse in the message, and it could render many of its other policy proposals far weaker than they might be.

If Mr. Snyder wants now to enjoy the treats on smoothly paved highway it will require, as nothing else has in his still young administration, a combination of two things: splendidly exercised political skill and the threat of a pounding with brass knuckles. Again, sadly for him, the glaring lapses leading up to this make both necessary.

Mr. Snyder has still avoided his fight with the legislature, as has been noted earlier. To win what he views as critical for the state may mean, in fact probably means, he will have to deliver some bruises. Because, he has taken some bruises himself.

As he delivers a punch, he needs to remember one can do so civilly. The best and most civil of politicians were damn good at doing so, which is why they were the best.

It also has been noted previously that Mr. Snyder needs some top professional help. The phrase professional politician is today an anathema, but former President Harry Truman once said that, “A politician is a man who understands government, and it takes a politician to run a government.”

“A statesman is a politician who has been dead 10 or 15 years,” the late great president concluded.

First, to recap: the Senate Economic Development Committee failed to move legislation that would have created an authority to build the New International Trade Crossing, the renamed Detroit River International Crossing. It failed in part because Democrats on the committee would not vote for the measure when a proposal calling for community benefits in the Detroit Delray neighborhood was rejected.

The committee acted before a packed house. Among those packing the crowd were a couple of…mature women, shall we say, who did not live in Delray, who were not directly affected by the proposal to build the new bridge, but who held up handmade signs saying “No Bridge.”

Their presence spoke to how the Snyder administration failed in a critical element leading up to the vote. The message of their signs could be the result that neither Mr. Snyder nor the owners of the Ambassador Bridge want. Which points out the problem the Detroit International Bridge Company and the Moroun family created for itself in its tactics.

Because of a singular determination to prevent a vote on the bridge from taking place a year ago — as part of the many standoffs between former Governor Jennifer Granholm and former Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop — Mr. Snyder came to office officially undecided on the bridge issue.

When he enthusiastically endorsed it in his State of the State address, most observers presumed he would win the day on the issue. No one expected it to be easy. After all, legislative Republicans had held onto the lines that a new bridge was not needed, and if one was, the DIBC should build it. Converting them from that rosary would not be easy.

Mr. Snyder’s administration, working with Lt. Governor Brian Calley in the lead, did a great job of expanding the issue beyond Detroit. They were nothing less than splendid in getting the statewide business community to endorse the proposal.

What they seemed to have forgotten, though, is that businesses don’t vote. In the end, it is the public that votes, and, ultimately, it is the public sense that will govern.

Which Manuel Moroun and his executives did not forget. The company through its political arms, and its controversial consultant Dick Morris, began a series of television ads that helped galvanize overall public opinion against the NITC. Coming off an election in which wasteful government spending was a key issue, the ads could do little else but convince voters that the proposed bridge was a treacherous, needless waste.

Why were the ads convincing? In no small part because they were unanswered. When supporters of the new bridge needed to convince the public of its worth, they chose a limited way to do so. They focused on gatherings with opinion leaders and party meetings and such. There was never a mass message put out to at least neutralize the ads.

Some observers have said Mr. Snyder and his allies could have made Mr. Moroun a villain. The governor has avoided personalizing and attacking. He could still have avoided conflict and neutralized the Ambassador ads as well.

Imagine the potential impact of a pro-bridge ad that started out: “10,000 new jobs!” Well, in today’s environment the promise of new jobs outweighs even sex as an attraction, so it would have gotten someone’s attention at least.

To get ads on television or even radio would mean money. Here the Moroun family had a significant advantage in having a great personal fortune. Shouldn’t have mattered, right?, not with all these businesses in line supporting the NITC.

But sources have indicated the business community was happy to lend its name to the fight, less so their wallets. The old adage that you have to spend money to make money has, of course, largely been forgotten in the shivering economic recovery, and it was certainly forgotten now.

However, the Morouns may have succeeded too well. Remember that the mature ladies held up a sign saying “No Bridge,” not “No NITC.” The Morouns want to build a new bridge next to the Ambassador Bridge. By making the general case against a new bridge, they may have irreparably damaged any remaining hope not just for their bridge but to play an active role in building an NITC should that still be an option.

Fresh from his defeat, Mr. Snyder said there needs to be a cooling off period. Again, that may be a mistake, since the opponents will certainly not cool down their efforts.

He is not giving up on the NITC. The days before the failed vote he outlined how critical it would be to his vision of turning the state into a major trade and transit hub. In his infrastructure message he again repeated the need for the NITC.

Mr. Snyder probably always intended to take a pass on proposing a major tax increase in the infrastructure message, but his saying the state needs more than $1 billion suggests the state needs about $10 a month per vehicle. And by not proposing the tax himself means odds are the legislature sure as shootin’ isn’t going to take the initiative to propose it on its own. Without sufficient revenue, the other changes Mr. Snyder has proposed will have far more limited impact.

And coming as it did after the collapse of the NITC, it makes Mr. Snyder seem tentative, less sure of himself, more vulnerable.

So it is now Mr. Snyder and his allies have to develop a combination of political acumen and pugilistic toughness in double measure and triple fast. If he wants the NITC, the cooling off period needed to have ended 20 minutes after the committee dumped the vote.

To refine the point, if he and his allies want an NITC the state has some authority over, he needs to practice some sweet spot hammering. Yet to be heard in this controversy is the federal government. Yet it is understood the feds want the NITC as much as the Canadians do.

At what point do the feds start trying to muscle in and make some decisions on a structure they will pay the bulk of the money for and which they consider necessary for the nation’s economic security? It is inconceivable they won’t respond in some fashion, even if that response is, “Screw you Michigan, we’re building in Buffalo.”

Back to the hackneyed, tired and shopworn images given this Halloween. Mr. Snyder is suddenly collecting a pile of ghosts and goblins. He will have to study up on his exorcism exercises and use them quickly. Elsewise, he’ll end up with all tricks this holiday, and maybe for sometime to come.

John Lindstrom is publisher of Gongwer News Service. For nearly 50 years in Michigan, Gongwer News Service has provided independent, comprehensive, accurate and timely coverage of issues in and around Michigan’s government and political systems. For subscription information, including a free trial, visit Gongwer online.

October 27, 2011 · Filed under Weekly Update

12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Walt Sorg // Oct 28, 2011 at 7:48 am

    This is another example of why term limits are such bad policy.
    Our last two Governors came into office without a clue of how the public policy process works in Lansing and, as a result, were unable to deal with opposition to any of their proposals. On top of that you have legislators without the experience and knowledge to handle complex issues effectively.
    It is the perfect formula for stalemate on critical issues.
    Until term limits are repealed we will relive this history again and again.

  • 2 Chuck Fellows // Oct 28, 2011 at 8:05 am

    Get to the root, and it isn’t term limits, it’s how politics is financed.

    Things change so rapidly that everyone is now an amateur. Ending term limits will provide those with a bit more human relations experience but you do not need a political position to gain these skills. Negotiation is negotiation, period.

    Influence, now that is another story and until you address the root issue, campaign finance, you are screwed.

    All donations into a public trust equitably distributed to all general election candidates on the ballot ninety days prior to the general election.

    That will go a long way to empowering the public that really care and minimize the distortions produced by special interests such as the Moroun family.

    Of course what media entity in its’ right mind would want to end this kind of juicy dispute.

  • 3 Jim Lively // Oct 28, 2011 at 10:08 am

    Yes, the failure to move the NITC was a setback, but I think you are missing a broader point about Snyder’s infrastructure speech – he laid out some bold ideas that are shaking up Michigan’s traditional road builders. Allowing for regional and local funding sources, eliminating road commissions, and further investments in transit and rail indicate a radical shift in understanding about what the public wants in a transportation system. Yes, we want smooth roads, but we also want more choices than just driving. And Snyder is starting that dialogue.

  • 4 David Waymire // Oct 28, 2011 at 10:23 am

    Yes, but he’s starting the dialogue with yet another regressive proposal. His $120 vehicle registration fee means a $20,000 family who drives 10,000 miles a year will pay the same as a $100,000 family who drives 30,000 miles. And the facts are in, as this shows: http://www.factcheck.org/2008/06/mccain-and-the-gas-tax/
    “Households with income of $75,000 or more drove nearly two-and-a-half times as many miles as households with income between $10,000 and $14,999.”
    What is this war on the poor that we seem to be engaged in…even in the area of transportation fees?

  • 5 larold // Oct 28, 2011 at 11:07 am

    It wasn’t Moroun that shot down Snyder’s bridge; it was Snyder. Didn’t you notice the deafening non-cries heard everywhere outside Detroit when the bridge project collapsed. No one outside 23 mile sees any need for it, regardless of the lt. gov’s efforts with legislators. Furthermore, who benefits from this? Business. How is this different from anything else Snyder has proposed? Now he introduces an idiotic idea to pay for roads by tripling auto registration fees. This way, someone that drives 5,000 miles a year or owns a historic vehicle only drive in parades will pay relatively the same for roads as a semi owner or anyone that travels 150,000 miles a year. People have seen through what tiny veneer existed on Snyder’s program: everything he proposes is for business benefit; the rest of us pay for it.

  • 6 Lack of experience? // Oct 28, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    Mr. Lindstrom has it all wrong if his thesis is that Snyder lacked political skills and did not rely enough on political advisors with experience. This bill was in trouble from the very day it got announced at the State of the State, which was the very definition of political theatrics. Watch the film and look at the reactions of the Senate and House leaders. They got more then left out of the loop on this, they got told beforehand that the bridge would NOT be in speech. Who told Snyder to do this? Certainly, the very same political experts Mr. Lindstrom said Snyder needed to listen to more. Snyder had an opportunity for a fresh start on this issue, and his expert poltical advisors started him off instead on the same path that got Granholm into so much trouble with her efforts on orchestration and poltical maneuvering that doomed her efforts. Whoever gave Snyder that advice should be fired, like a golf shot lined up in the wrong direction from the get go the bridge had no chance after that point. To also imply that Snyder didn’t work it hard enough, or was afraid to use the bully pulpit is also off base. I don’t think an administration has twisted the arms of its own party more on an issue since Engler. The bottom line is Snyder got bad political advice from his supposed experts, advice they probably gave for their own purposes. Things would have faired better if the Governor had approached it in his own style (the style that got him here by the way).

  • 7 Snyder’s Romneyesque Approach to Michigan Transportation « Cynical Synapse // Oct 29, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    […] up, Snyder figures Michigan needs an extra $10 per month from every vehicle registration. Sounds minimal, but that’s $120 per year, on top of what you’re already […]

  • 8 harvey bronstein // Oct 31, 2011 at 5:16 pm

    I agree with David Waymeyer. The Governor does not understand the struggle that people are going through. Besides, why should someone driving a small car for 7,500 pay what another driving an SUV drives 40,000

  • 9 sandra kahn // Nov 1, 2011 at 9:54 am

    Great technocrat comments on why he failed, but his real failure was acting like a CEO and not a politician. He sent his minions out to speak to the public for him, and never explained an actual need or why the government should be so heavily involved. At Mackinac, he sat on the stage like a puppet master while others delivered his lines. This might work in a board room, but it makes Joe Public cynical.

  • 10 Ireene // Nov 4, 2011 at 8:33 am

    The commercial trucks are tearing up the roads. We need to reinstate some of the load limits.
    The registration fees are ridiculous, they just highlight how out of touch the powers that rule are with the average “JOE”. Where is the sense in all this?

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