It wasn’t a revolution -- but it just might signify a sea change.
I’m referring to the results of the Nov. 8 off-year elections, which were anxiously scrutinized for possible indicators of public mood. Would that message be a continuation of 2010’s sharp tilt to the Tea Party-driven right -- or a cautionary tale about over-reaching?
The big news in Michigan was the recall -- by a miniscule unofficial 197 votes out of more than 24,000 votes cast -- of State Rep. Paul Scott, R-Grand Blanc. Scott had been chairman of the House Education Committee, which had enraged teachers’ unions by passing “tenure reform,” making it easier for schools to fire ineffective teachers. The Michigan Education Association badly wanted to oust Scott -- and threw a reported $150,000 into the campaign, plus many volunteer “ground troops.”
And they -- barely -- succeeded. So, was this an overwhelming repudiation of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and his campaign to reform and reinvent Michigan? Hardly. But if the recall election had been held a year ago, you can bet Scott would have survived.
Nationally, the results seemed to suggest a push back against the hard right. In Ohio, voters decisively (by 61 percent) repealed SB5, the bill that Republican Gov. John Kasich rammed through the legislature that essentially eviscerated collective bargaining rights of public employee unions. In Mississippi, voters rejected an anti-abortion measure that would have given a fertilized ovum all the rights of a person, while in Arizona a state senator who had been the leader in the anti-immigrant movement was recalled.
So there are clear signs that the triumphant national march to victory by the Tea Party right in 2010 has, at a minimum, been slowed. When the result was in. Even Ohio’s Kasich said his extreme approach might have been, “too much too soon.”
But what do the Michigan results mean? Are they are a warning for the governor to keep on a basically centrist agenda rather than tilt sharply to the right? In his inauguration speech, Snyder said “We have spent too much time fighting among ourselves and become our own worst enemy. I’ve been hired to represent all of the people of the state of Michigan and to move us all forward together.”
And as controversial as some of his policies have been, Snyder, so far, has avoided the hard-edged agendas of Kasich in Ohio and Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin. Michigan‘s governor said he had no interest in killing public employee collective bargaining rights. He expresses no interest in ideology, apart from whatever pragmatic approach seems likely to attract jobs and investment.
Earlier this year, the Center for Michigan, the nonpartisan “think-and-do tank” I founded, held a series of community conversations and statewide polls to test public reaction to Snyder’s “reinvent Michigan” agenda. It found a fair amount of public support for business-friendly tax cuts, cutting public employee benefits and reforms in government efficiency.
At the same time, the Center found little public support for some of the more extreme ideas from the far right, including making Michigan into an anti-union shop “right to work” state.
Earlier, the Center’s “Michigan’s Defining Moment” campaign found broad public support for public investment in our state’s distinctive and competitive assets, such as natural resources and universities, in meetings involving more than 10,000 Michiganders.
As a longtime election watcher, my sense is that last week’s vote confirmed, if anything, the wisdom of governing from the center. There are members of the Legislature who differ, some strongly. That means much of our politics over the next year will rotate around whether our governing agenda will be basically centrist or hard right.
One more thought: In mulling over this election, I was drawn to remember from my college physics class two of Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion and to try to apply them to the confusions of politics.
One of them says this: “Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.”
This law describes inertia, and it suggests the underlying reason why political movements, once started and, once successful, tend to continue along the same path. In a sense, it is the physical law that underlies the tendency of political movements to over-reach … until brought up sharp by public attitudes.
Finally, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” A triumphant movement like the Tea Party tends to call forth a reaction, the beginnings of which just might have been visible in the sketchy returns from last week’s election.
Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think-and-do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture. He is also on the board of the Center’s Business Leaders for Early Education. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of The Center. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.