An “Eisenhower” Governor?
January 23, 2015
LANSING – Will Gov. Rick Snyder turn out, in his second term, to be a sort of modern-day, moderate “Eisenhower Republican?”
Twenty years ago, a frustrated Bill Clinton turned to his advisors. “I hope you’re all aware that we are Eisenhower Republicans here, and we are fighting the Reagan Republicans.”
This story, first made public by famed Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in his book “The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House,” is usually interpreted to mean that classic liberalism was dead. However, it meant the administration was also determined to block radical right-wing schemes as well.
In fact, the next words out of Clinton’s mouth were “We stand for lower deficits and free trade and the bond market … isn’t that great?” The president was being sarcastic.
But it indeed did turn out to be pretty great. By the end of the Clinton Administration, inflation and unemployment were low and the federal budget was actually running a consistent surplus for the first and only time since the 1920s.
When Rick Snyder first took office as governor in 2011, there were widespread hopes that he too would be a more moderate species of Republican. He had been elected in a landslide, with the votes of most independents and even some Democrats.
But the new governor often disillusioned and disappointed moderates. He signed a bill repealing the law forcing motorcycle riders to wear helmets. He supported taxing pensions and slashed education spending to give businesses huge tax cuts.
Most dismaying of all, he reversed course and helped ram through a right-to-work law. All this clearly lost him many votes. Two months ago, he barely managed to be re-elected with 51 percent.
Now, however, there may be signs of a new Rick Snyder, one who is willing to take on the hard right wing of his party.
Last week, the 56-year-old governor stunned some by vetoing three items pushed by conservatives in his party. First, he killed a bill that would have allowed those with a personal protection order against them to get a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
“We simply can’t and won’t take the chance of exposing domestic abuse victims to additional violence,” said the governor, who was promptly denounced by the National Rifle Association.
Snyder also vetoed a bill that would have prevented the state Department of Natural Resources from considering biodiversity in its management plans. (The logging industry doesn’t want any interference with harvesting all the wood it wants.)
The governor also vetoed a package of bills which would have prevented electronic cigarettes from being regulated as tobacco products. They contain nicotine, Snyder said, adding “It’s important that these devices be treated like tobacco products.”
They are dangerous, he said, and need to be “regulated in the best interest of public health.”
Nor did the governor stop there. Normally, Snyder has refused comment on any bill before it reaches his desk. But he came out swinging last week against Arlen Meekhof, the newly elected Senate Majority Leader from his own party. Meekhof, long seen as an extreme conservative, hates Michigan’s “prevailing wage” law, which basically requires construction workers on state projects to be paid union-scale wages, whether they are unionized or not.
Last week, he and a number of House Republicans announced plans to repeal prevailing wage. But the governor bluntly said he wasn’t interested. “I didn’t support it (repeal) in the first four years, and I’m not going to support it in the next four years,” he told reporters.
In fact, Snyder said the current prevailing wage system “works well,” and added that’s what you hear if you talk to contractors on state projects.
Basically, it sounded like the governor was issuing something close to a veto threat. Snyder also apparently told Democrats, when seeking their support for a road funding bill last year that he would not sign a bill to roll back prevailing wage.
Three vetoes do not necessarily mean that everything has changed. But there are a number of reasons to think we may be about to see a rockier relationship between the governor and his fellow Republicans who control the Michigan Legislature.
First, while the new legislature is slightly more Republican, it is considerably further right. Meekhof is far more ideological than the man he replaced, former Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville. New Speaker of the House Kevin Cotter is younger (37), tougher, and perhaps more savvy than his predecessor, Jase Bolger.
There is an added complication: While the governor and the legislature need to cooperate to, for example, pass budgets, neither feel they owe very much to each other. Rick Snyder is now a lame duck and cannot run again. He also ran behind most other Republicans last fall, and few, if any, owe their elections to them.
On the other hand, Snyder may feel that he gave the right-wing of his party much of what they asked, and got very little in return. For three years he failed, for example, to get lawmakers to pass any serious new spending for the roads.
In the end, all they would agree to do is slap a sales tax increase on the May ballot, putting any real road repair off, leaving the state’s long-term budget plans in limbo, and forcing the governor to spend time, energy and money campaigning for a ballot proposal which was not his preferred method of funding the roads.
Now, there’s a new session and new disagreements.
The governor and his legislative leaders may well patch up their differences. But if not, this year may be more interesting than fun.
Jack Lessenberry, the longtime head of journalism at Wayne State University, can be heard on his podcast on YouTube via the Zing Media Network. He also is a winner of a National Emmy Award for a 1994 Frontline documentary on Dr. Jack Kevorkian, has served as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is now a columnist for and a consultant to both that newspaper and Block Communications, Inc. He is also the co-author of “The People’s Lawyer,” a biography of Frank Kelley, the nation’s longest-serving attorney general, and is working on a book on a pioneering newspaper family and race.