Saturday, December 19, 2009

The GOP kisses the Rust Belt goodbye

Do the Republicans ever plan to win Michigan again? How about Ohio, Illinois or even Indiana?

Before the gang of GOP senators killed the $14 billion bridge loan for Chrysler and General Motors last week, they unleashed an ugly Southern snobbery about us Rust Belt rubes. And they just might have strangled their chances in here for years to come.

Let's not forget the GOP just lost the entire region to the man who will become the first African-American president, save for West Virginia. The Republicans only have one governorship here, in Indiana. Evidently, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell & Co. want to finish the job.

So they decided to bludgeon the Big Three while they were down and suffocate the United Auto Workers while they were at it.

Maybe they sincerely believe the domestic autos will be better off in bankruptcy. Maybe they expected President Bush to come to the rescue all along. Maybe they really think Honda and Toyota plants in their states would blossom if the domestics died, even though company executives warned they'd suffer because many of their suppliers would go under.

Maybe they were genuinely offended by the idea of the government messing with capitalism, although that didn't stop many of them from dumping $700 billion in the laps of Wall Street investment bankers.

But a leaked memo from the Senate GOP reveals it was all about politics and payback to the unions: "Republicans should stand firm and take their first shot against organized labor, instead of taking their first blow from it."

So much for principle. It's nice to know that our friends from Dixie were willing to play Russian roulette with 3 million jobs, spark a depression in the Midwest and cost taxpayers four times as much money as we'd be out with the bridge loan. Why not? Serves the evil UAW right.

Look, the loan is unpopular nationally, so this may be a good tactic. But it is insanely poor strategy if Republicans want to stay competitive in the Rust Belt and its pool of 151 electoral votes.

You can't just write off a region and expect to be a national party. That's why Barack Obama competed hard in the South and West. It paid off when he piled up an electoral landslide and padded Democrats' margins in Congress.

Michigan Republican Party Chair Saul Anuzis gets this. His main appeal in his quest to head the Republican National Committee is that he's only guy who knows how to get Reagan Democrats back.

Presumably, it's not by stripping them of jobs and sneering that it's their fault.

Midwest Democrats will retaliate in kind for the Big Three and are chomping at the bit to finish off Republicans in 2010 and beyond.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm is already on the attack, blasting senators willing to risk a depression as "un-American" and questioning their loyalty to foreign companies at the expense of U.S. workers. It's a crude rhetorical flourish on steroids, but it's enough to earn a megaphone on "Meet the Press." That kind of red-blooded American chest-beating puts her on the offensive and makes Republicans spluttering to defend their taupe Toyota Camrys look like girly-men.

Translation: Democrats strong and patriotic. Republicans weak and love foreigners. Shamelessly jingoistic, sure, but it effectively flips the post-9/11 conventional wisdom on its head.

Meanwhile, just where are the Republicans? Yes, the entire Michigan delegation voted for the $14 billion, save for U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, who claims he was recovering from surgery. But why have GOP leaders been avoiding TV cameras like the plague? You can't keep Granholm; Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit; or Rep. Sandy Levin, D-Royal Oak, off the news.

The notable exception is U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, co-chair of the Congressional Auto Caucus, but he's largely preferred to operate behind the scenes.

Most have opted for silent support as the Big Three teeter at the abyss. You can point to a blog post by U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, here, or an op-ed by Attorney General Mike Cox there, but there's no real face of the GOP during this crisis.

This would seem to be the perfect time for one state Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, to grab the spotlight, as he'd like Cox's job and could use some positive press. Indeed, the White House has pushed him to do it. But despite backing the Big Three, he seems paralyzed about taking the lead, almost as much as he is about setting an agenda in the Legislature.

The result is a power vacuum, with Granholm often battling Mitt Romney in the national media. Republicans, do you really want the guy who doesn't care if Detroit dies, who last lived in Michigan when polyester pants were groovy, as your mouthpiece? Come on. He's not even going to merit an invite to your county Lincoln Day dinner.

This is a chance for Republicans to remake their image after two straight electoral thumpings. What's good for Michigan could be very good for the GOP -- but no one seems to have gotten that memo.

Friday, January 9, 2009

A battle plan for Bishop

It's a little belated, but if I could give Mike Bishop a Christmas gift, it would be Bill Clinton's triangulation strategy.

The Senate Majority Leader looks primed at the start of the new legislative session to dig in his heels against a much more Democratic House and his arch-enemy, Gov. Jennifer Granholm. With a deficit of at least $265 million, we can probably expect a dreary rerun of the last two years of leaders' shouting matches followed by months of ignoring each other, with all the adolescent angst and maturity found on "90210."

It doesn't have to be that way. But that would entail Bishop charting a new and more realistic approach, just as Clinton did during the Republican Revolution of the '90s.

And realism is not Bishop's forte.

The Rochester Republican has his supporters, who laud him as a staunch ally of the business community, the last line of defense against tax-happy, spend-it-all Democrats. That image was tarnished, obviously, when he repeatedly allowed votes in 2007 to increase business and income taxes.

But Bishop tried to make amends last year by pushing exemptions in the Michigan Business Tax, scrapping the film industry tax cuts and making the energy package more business-friendly.

Every movement needs a boogeyman and Bishop fills that role for the left, whose three bloggers routinely disparage him for everything from eating babies to slathering copious amounts of gel in his coif. His bad-boy press secretary, Matt Marsden, also gets his share of the love.

Problem is, Bishop is so beleaguered that he really doesn't make for a fun foe like Karl Rove or George W. Bush, who smirkingly served up a constant stream of outrage for liberals everywhere for the last eight years.

Gone is Bishop's boyishness, his mirthful aquamarine eyes, replaced by his disappointed dad persona on the Senate floor ("Next dysfunctional issue," he repeatedly muttered on the last day of session). Ten years in government have taken their toll on the basically anti-government guy who looks to have run for majority leader just to see if he could do it.

Now that ambition appears to be propelling him toward an attorney general bid (even though Congress would be much more hospitable terrain). In reality, Mike Bishop would probably be happiest returning to the private sector as a real estate developer, raising his young family and making a little money.

But he has two years to leave a legacy, such as they are in the era of term limits. He fashions himself to be the L. Brooks Patterson of the Legislature, but his moderate mentor would never get bogged down in social issues like partial-birth abortion, which bore him silly. As Oakland County executive and now a potential gubernatorial contender, Brooksie takes a creative, results-oriented approach to doing the people's business.

What Bishop offers is Republican government as usual. When the Wall Street crisis hit last fall, he called a hastily organized press conference to announce a bold new economic plan.

"Our country's not the same anymore. The state can't continue in the same path," declared Bishop as he rolled out his same ole agenda of business tax loopholes and cuts.

Seriously, there wasn't a new idea in the mix, which probably means it's time for some new blood in his policy shop.

When I pressed him, Bishop insisted, "Our responsibility as the Republican Party is to stick to our core principles and we hope Gov. Granholm comes on board."

Which means he has it exactly backward in today's political reality. The Democrats aren't as strong in Michigan as they are nationally, but they've picked up nine seats in the House and have the momentum. As people watch their 401(k)s shrivel, there's a lot less of the "Get government off my back" lament and a lot more clamor for pols to get off their butts and do something.

While Bishop will win kudos from conservative stalwarts for standing his ground, he'll get as much done this session as he did the last -- just about nothing.

Wonder why we got stuck with the now-repealed service tax? Bishop wouldn't sign off on a far less destructive income tax hike. Want to know why the MBT surcharge didn't die, despite constant moaning from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce? Bishop wouldn't horse-trade.

So when you're the party out of power facing unfavorable ideological winds, you pull a Bill Clinton if you want to survive, and even thrive. Take a couple of your opposition's best ideas, tweak them with new buzzwords and make them your own. And voila! "Welfare to work."

While being more moderate is clearly a smart strategy in today's climate (despite yelps from the doyens of denial running the GOP), nabbing a few victories also provides breathing room to regroup and rebuild. Republicans actually could come up with a few fresh ideas that don't start with the phrase, "Well, Ronald Reagan did ..."

This won't be easy for Bishop, who's facing considerable opposition within his own caucus from rivals Jason Allen, Wayne Kuipers and Bruce Patterson. With 31 senators term-limited in '10, the upper chamber could turn into a free-for-all as members, Bishop included, are lookin' for their next job.

Forging a new strategy would at least give the state's top Republican a record to run on.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The GOP plays to the base

The Republican Party has always relished looking backward.

That accounts for its earnest obsession with naming everything from streets to schools after Ronald Reagan.

As the GOP flails about after their Nov. 4 drubbing, there's a lot of puffery about rebuilding for the future, which folks agree basically means going on Facebook and Twitter more.

But the party is still stuck in the past. Case in point: Michigan GOP chair and national party honcho hopeful Saul Anuzis' gauzy Republican blueprint can be summed up with the bumper-sticker philosophy of, "What Would Reagan Do?"

What Republicans desperately want to do is crank back the clock to 1980. But while their party is static, politics and the populace are not. There are 75 million more of us now, with minorities accounting for much of that growth. Whereas Americans blamed the '70s economic malaise on the era of big government, today we're grousing that the feds weren't minding the store while our 401(k)s shriveled.

In the last few weeks, some Republicans have gone even further. They've sought to rocket the Wayback Machine to 1962 or even 1929, bizarrely longing for the glory days of Herbert Hoover and Jim Crow.

It started with the proposed $14 billion bridge loan for Chrysler and General Motors. Dick Cheney invoked the scourge of the GOP, declaring it would be "Herbert Hoover time" if Senate Republicans nixed it. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blew up the deal anyway, leaving the White House to reluctantly come through with the funds.

But the soon-to-be top Republican isn't done yet. McConnell has vowed to put the brakes on any fiscal stimulus package proposed by Barack Obama, even though a clear majority of Americans backs it, as opposed to the auto loan. This is precisely the tight-fisted philosophy championed by Hoover that plunged America even deeper into Great Depression.

Oh, and it also caused the 31st president to be laughed out of office and ushered in 20 straight years of Democratic rule.

There's a reason why few Republicans have attempted to rehabilitate the reputation of the stocky free-market stalwart decades later. Why McConnell & Co. would want to follow in the footsteps of such a dismal failure is mind-bending.

It's worth noting that conservative and liberal economists today are remarkably united behind the federal government pumping billions into the parched economy. Obama also has pledged to keep his promise to cut taxes for the middle class, which should make Republicans (and their constituents) happy, but alas, no. They still seem miffed that they've stopped winning elections on the issue.

If Republicans have a better plan to jump-start the economy, let's hear it. But opposing the stimulus just because a Democrat proposed it doesn't fly in these desperate times. And that kind of crass politicking usually doesn't pay off.

Just ask outgoing state House Minority Craig DeRoche, whose legacy after clawing against any compromise on Michigan's budget last year is losing nine seats.

Then there's Chip Saltsman, a jovial, jowly guy with a penchant for sending CDs featuring that hot new classic, "Barack the Magic Negro."

Just another member of the tin-foil hat brigade who shoots off those chain e-mails that Obama won't be inaugurated because there's *PROOF* he's not a U.S. citizen, right?

Yeah, only Saltsman's no nut job. The former head of the Tennessee GOP now wants to run the Republican National Committee. So he decided there was no better way to court RNC members than with the gift of a goofy racist ditty. Seriously.

Both Anuzis and current RNC Chair Mike Duncan did the logical and honorable thing by condemning Saltsman. But the dustup hasn't wounded the Chipster one bit.

As Maine GOP Chair Mark Ellis snorted, "When I found out what this was about I had to ask, 'Boy, what's the big deal here?' because there wasn't any."

I'm not one to normally get bent out of shape over the politically incorrect uproar du jour. People say and do stupid things; it's human nature. Apologize and move on. But Saltsman hasn't done that, of course, and it's really the aftermath that's significant in this case.

Republican strategists are now saying that it's Duncan and Anuzis who have hurt their own chance by speaking out. Saltsman evidently has received a warm reception from RNC members by ripping his opponents for playing to the national media, not the base.

Let's pause for a minute here. A flagrantly bigoted (and juvenilely unfunny) song doesn't offend the GOP base (how apropos), but denouncing it does.

What century are we living in, again?

This incident confirms the worst stereotypes of the Republican Party as a mean-spirited, racist relic tone-deaf to modern America. This is not the sort of publicity any group needs, especially one that has taken big thumpings two elections in a row.

The fact that many leaders don't see this as a problem guarantees that the GOP will be wandering in the wilderness for awhile.

If Republicans wanted to continue living in the past, they probably should have stuck to churning out those commemorative Reagan dimes.