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.