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.