Good for GM, good for social conservatives

General Motors says it had a record annual profit in 2011 of $7.6 billion, up 62 percent from the previous year.

Since we are hip deep in a political campaign, it seems reasonable to ask: Who gets the credit for it?

In practical terms, GM's improvement benefits anyone who now holds political office in Lansing or Washington. Put simply, when people think the future might be brighter, or that their situation is OK, they tend to keep incumbents. When they are angry or depressed about their prospects, the party that's been in power better watch out.

No one in Michigan better exemplifies this dynamic than Gov. Rick Snyder.

Go back to the 2010 campaign and recall what Snyder the businessman promised if elected. Yes, he called for a business tax cut -- and he talked a great deal of getting Michigan working again.

And, look, Michigan's economic trends are improving. Snyder's a genius, right?

Well, let's see. He had nothing to do with the decisions that kept GM afloat and set the stage for these new profit numbers. And his signature achievement -- the conversion of Michigan's business tax system -- took effect all of seven weeks ago. Snyder's role in economic trends is zero.

To be clear, that's the case for any governor. Jennifer Granholm did not wreck GM or Chrysler or Michigan's economy. She foolishly bid for office in the middle of an historic economic shift in a state where the key employers were led by management teams of questionable foresight. In an economic sense (as opposed to a governing one), Granholm was a victim of timing.

And Snyder has been a beneficiary of it. Michigan's economy was beginning to improve before he even took office. But he had the good sense to run for governor at the end of a massive recession and won office by proving that he was most definitely not the incumbent governor or a member of the incumbent governor's party.

If the favorable economic trends continue, Snyder and his team can look toward a re-election campaign in 2014 that will be as easy as John Engler's 1998 re-election bid.

Life may be a bit more rocky in the interim, however. An improving Michigan economy will do two things to the political dynamic at the State Capitol:

1. It will further de-emphasize the 2012 general elections in the Michigan House as incumbents on the general election ballot will be in a most advantageous position.

2. It will reduce the salience of an "economic policy only" argument.

Snyder and his team have tried, at least publicly, to keep the Legislature's energies focused on tax, spending and development issues. But there are GOP members in the Legislature who would like to spend more time and energy on social issues. If the economy is strengthening, social issues tend to come to the fore.

This will be amplified by the dynamics of this year's House elections: Most GOP incumbents don't have to worry about the fall votes, but they do have to worry about potential Republican primary threats from their right flanks. How do you get outflanked on the right in a GOP primary? By not being seen as adhering to doctrine on certain social issues.

Snyder has shown that he will not fight with legislative Republicans on social issues. He signed the public employee domestic partner benefits ban bill even though it goes against the standards of the business world -- and probably his own good sense.

Free of major economic worries, yet possibly concerned about primary threats this summer, House GOP'ers may ratchet up the social agenda. And that could mean the governor may be signing more bills this year he's not eager to sign, or picking a fight or two with his own party in the Legislature.

Even successful timing has its price.

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Comments

mike mack
Tue, 02/21/2012 - 10:29am
In fairness, Granholm was a "victim" of timing; however, she was also incompetent.