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.