"We have a broken political culture in our political world where it's okay to say we can spend money …and leave the bill for the kids. I don't think that's right either. If we're going to do something, let's make sure we're paying for it."
‒ Gov. Rick Snyder, 2018 State of the State
Rick Snyder gave his last State of the State speech last Tuesday, Jan. 23. It sounded in many ways like his first, in 2011.
Eight years ago, to the astonishment of all, Snyder ‒ a moderate ‒ defeated three right-leaning opponents in the Republican primary election and then swept easily into the elaborate governor's office in the capitol. Snyder, a wealthy self-described "tough nerd" CPA with a business background at Gateway Computers, governed at least in his first term as a mostly civil, rational consensus builder.
Too rational and unemotional to be an instinctive politician, Snyder never quite mastered the required gut feel for people. Though the Flint water debacle was in very large part the product of incompetent bureaucrats in Lansing as well as misguided emergency managers in Flint, Snyder never realized that to lead, a governor needs to get out of his office and be on the scene.
In my view, that mistake was a major product of Snyder's unexpected and publicly reported interest in running for President, reports of which surfaced in the spring of 2015. My sense is that interest distracted Team Snyder, and took his eye off being governor at just the worst time.
Flint was, of course, the disaster that sunk any national ambitions he may have had, and led to a second term devoted largely to trying to repair the damage and restore balance to his office.
His final State of the State was a direct result of that. In his speech, Snyder warned against hasty and ill-considered tax cuts that would jeopardize the state's now stable financial condition.
He indicated he would allocate new hundreds of millions to fixing Michigan's perennially bad roads. He dumped all over the federal government's slow-walking "solution" to Asian carp in the Great Lakes. And he labeled his "number one priority" a "Marshall Plan for talent," scheduled for released soon.
It was a sane, sensible, slightly technocratic speech, one given by a very smart man with good business instincts and management skills. It didn't excite the natives to grab their pitchforks and storm the capitol. But it was, well, workmanlike.
It was also a speech by a lame-duck moderate governor largely out of sync with his party, which has moved steadily to the right while maintaining a hammerlock on legislative control. Two weeks ago, the Legislature, in what must have been acutely embarrassing to the governor, overrode Snyder's veto of legislation phasing out applying the sales tax to the value of auto trade-ins.
All but one of 90 Republican legislators abandoned him. And in this, his final year, it's clear Snyder will have a tough time negotiating things like more money for schools, with a legislature that’s predominantly interested in catering to the Republican base by cutting taxes in advance of the November 6th election.
Which brings me to long-term puzzlement about Snyder's strategic political thinking.
Republicans have dominated the legislature for years. These days, for example, the GOP supermajority in the Senate is 27 of 38 members, while it's 63 of 110 House members.
Take as a given that something like half of both Republican caucuses in the legislature will choke at working with Democrats, no matter what the subject.
But what about the other half?
Consider that half the House's 63 GOP house membership is 31. Add that to the 47 sitting Democrats, and you've got a bipartisan group of 78, more than enough to establish a working majority.
In the Senate the Republicans hold a super majority, 27 of 38 total members. Half of the Senate's 27 GOP membership is 13.
Add that to the 11 sitting Democrats, and you've got a bipartisan group of 24 in the upper chamber, who, if they hang together, could form a working majority.
Any experienced lawmaker can do this arithmetic without resorting to fingers and toes. And many have done it over the past couple of years, often within my hearing.
Yet to my knowledge, it hasn't even been tried. (This, despite that was the way William Milliken became governor back in 1969. When serving as a state senator, he made common cause with Democrats against the senatorial "old guard" and, in 1964, was elected lieutenant governor to serve with George Romney. When Romney went off to Washington to run HUD, Milliken became governor, serving a record 14 years, from 1969 to 1983.)
Sure, there are lots of reasons the bipartisan strategy is tough to achieve. Partisanship has grown much, much stronger over the past few years. Getting to a working majority in the Senate, in particular, is a tough climb. Many Democrats won't even think of collaborating even with moderate Republicans.
Those who fund both parties are, if anything, more fiercely partisan than their elected legislators … and on and on.
But public revulsion at the recent nakedly partisan nonsense in Lansing and Washington has grown so strongly that it's possible there might emerge an opening for a serious, well-thought-out bipartisan effort to undo our crippled and deadlocked democracy.
This wouldn't be a full-blown third party, but a bipartisan policy effort could be the beginning of an attempt to undo the unfolding disaster that is now facing our political system.
Far-fetched? Maybe – but maybe not.
And worth a thought, if only because another couple years of what we've got now seems nearly unendurable.