BY JACK LESSENBERRY
---- — There’s little doubt that if they’d held a straw poll for governor at last week’s Mackinac Policy Conference, Rick Snyder would have been re-elected by a landslide.
And if the media had been excluded, he might have gotten more than 90 percent of those who paid to get in to the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce’s annual gathering of the business, political and lobbying communities.
Indeed, the entire event had an air of celebration about it. Richard Dale Snyder, who made a fortune in business before turning to politics, is the most business-oriented governor the state has had since at least World War II.
For most corporate interests, what’s not to like about a governor who slashed state business taxes by more than 50 percent and battles his own party in the Legislature to get roads, bridges, and other infrastructure improvements they need?’
What’s more, he talks their language:
“Relentless positive action!” he told the closing session of the conference, adding that his personal role model was the original Henry Ford, who kept trying after his first two companies failed.
Sounding for all the world like a motivational speaker sent to fire up a sluggish sales force, he told them, “We are the comeback state in the United States,” adding:
“This is not the time to be complacent or content. This is about a culture change. We have to be forward looking, not backward looking.” At times, he sounded slightly like a parody of Sinclair Lewis’s 1920s-era novel Babbitt, as when he said:
“What’s the role of government ? … government exists to give you great customer service!” As for Detroit, “are we giving great customer service to the neighborhoods? We have work to do there.”
Ironically, mere hours before he gave his closing pep talk, the governor had been sucker-punched when the Pulte Group, a home builder on the Detroit area since the 1950s, announced it was moving its corporate headquarters to the fast-growing Atlanta market.
By the time he had to face reporters about this, Rick Snyder was reasonably cheerful, saying the way to avoid such things was growth. “We need to grow. Let’s grow the state.”
Still, the governor was clearly embarrassed. Why Pulte did not wait till after the conference to make the announcement isn’t clear.
But there were at least two attendees who were not unhappy over anything embarrassing the governor. One was Mark Schauer, a one-term congressman from Battle Creek who is the Democratic party’s anointed choice for governor next year.
The other is Lon Johnson, the young, energetic and numbers-crunching new Democratic state chair.
“We can win this race,” he told me confidently as we shared a ferry at the end of the conference. “They will have money, but this is a Democratic state, and a lot of voters who thought they were voting for a moderate who was above partisan politics have buyer’s remorse.”
Possibly, but beating any incumbent is a struggle; since Michigan’s present constitution was ratified in 1963, no governor has ever been denied a second term - or failed to win by a margin larger than the one by which he or she was originally elected.
Yet it is hard to see the governor who rammed through right-to-work legislation topping the 58 percent of the vote he got in the GOP landslide year of 2010.
Beyond that, however, there is a struggle going on behind the surface for the soul of the GOP, in Michigan as nationally.
There are the Rick Snyders - pro-business to be sure, not beloved of labor unions, but in favor of pragmatic policies meant to help business and the state’s bottom line.
Then there are the right-wing ideologues of the legislatures, who oppose anything, no matter how sensible, if it requires tax revenue or is supported by the federal government in general and President Obama in particular.
Whether by accident or design, every one of the national headline speakers imported for the conference stressed the practical over the ideological. MSNBC host and former congressman Joe Scarborough praised Republican governors, and denounced figures in Congress like U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and U.S. Sen . Ted Cruz, R-Tex., as selfish egomaniacs.
Controversial education reformer Michelle Rhee urged conservatives to get behind programs that demand more of students and to adopt the Common Core Curriculum standards.
“People are saying, we don’t like it when the federal government tells us what to do. I say, you really shouldn’t like the fact that China (in education) is kicking our butts right now, Get over the fact that you feel bad about the federal government.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush also praised the Common Core standards, noting they were an initiative of the National Governors’ Association, not the feds. But he devoted most of his message to immigration reform and GOP attitudes towards ethnic minorities.
“Immigrants are twice as likely to start businesses as American-born citizens,” he argued, adding that America needs immigration to keep its population from declining.
He noted that his party didn’t seem to understand that. “We’re sending the message that they can’t join our club, but that we want their votes.”
But in a meeting with GOP legislators, his education message reportedly fell on deaf ears. Former legislator Jack Hoogendyk sneered in an e-mail “The Bush family seems to think big government knows better than the local school board.”
The battle over Common Core, like the battles over fixing the roads and expanding Medicaid, is all part of a broader struggle over whether ruling state Republicans will buy into policies that will enable Michigan to compete economically. The outcome, in turn, may go a long way to determine how well they will be able to politically compete in the future.
Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.