Disdain for Politics Gov. Snyder's Undoing?

An analysis of the gubernatorial race

It is time to reassess Michigan’s gubernatorial race; and flipping a coin might be the best approach to picking the winner. Polls show Gov. Rick Snyder and Democratic challenger former Congressman Mark Schauer neck and neck with Gov. Snyder’s momentum heading downward.

Maybe Gov. Snyder – said by some to be the smartest man in the room – knows precisely what he’s doing. Maybe his advisers have spotted something encouraging in the polling numbers others have missed, but the governor has slipped into a dead heat after being the favorite to win re-election only a few weeks ago.

Gov. Snyder’s problems appear to be multiplying and to a large extent self-inflicted. He has always displayed contempt for letting political expediency impact his decisions. Now, after repeatedly ignoring time-tested political considerations, his re-election is in jeopardy.

When asked if leaders should allow political factors to influence policy, most voters would reply with a resounding “no.” But in reality their assessment of leaders who pay no attention to politics depends on whether they agree or disagree with the result. If they disagree with the policy decision, they’ll usually argue that the leader has defied the will of the voters, or at least an important segment of voters. In other words, voters often want and expect their leaders to consider the political ramifications of their actions.

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Upon taking office Gov. Snyder claimed he wanted to change the culture in Lansing. At first, it looked like he was setting about doing so. As time passed, however, his decisions increasingly reflected the very culture he had said needed to be changed. This alone probably wouldn’t have threatened his re-election. But his neglect of the counterweight that traditionally keeps that culture in check just might.

The culture of Lansing is a deeply imbedded government-centric perspective pervading the 10-block radius of the Capitol. From this perspective, the well-being of government and the special interests attached to government is the overriding priority. One element alone mitigates and disciplines this government-centered culture, and that is a healthy fear of voters’ reactions. Leaders must balance the political impact of their decisions along with other considerations; repeatedly failing to do so shuts the voters out of the process. Gov. Snyder may have crossed this line once or twice too often.

During his first year in office, Gov. Snyder rearranged Michigan’s tax and revenue structure. This included the elimination of the tax exemption for pensions – or as it was called “the pension tax.” When the change occurred, many assumed Gov. Snyder would eventually follow up with some kind of general tax cut to remedy any negative long-term political impact. He never did this and is suffering the consequences.

Polling now shows the “pension tax” cutting into his support among senior citizens, a large number of which were not affected by the change, but mistakenly believe they were.

In 2013, Gov. Snyder wanted Medicaid expansion. Polls showed that a majority of Republican voters opposed it. His message could have been that President Barack Obama left him with two bad choices and he’d decided Medicaid expansion was the lesser evil of the two.

Rather than adopting this message, the one chosen was a virtual mirror image of the president’s Obamacare rhetoric. Use of this message was like rubbing salt in the wounds of the political right; unnecessarily intensifying bitterness over the issue.

In June, Gov. Snyder sought to double the state’s fuel tax to create a new revenue stream for fixing and maintaining the roads. The impetus for this came from a coalition of nearly every special interest group in Lansing. Most of these groups had just had their individual priorities taken care of with passage of a $52 billion budget.

Common political sense would advise against attempting to double the fuel tax six months prior to a general election. Taking at least some of the sought-after funds from the budget first might have been politically advisable as well. But the culture in Lansing said: “damn the torpedoes, we want it all now.” Apparently throwing political considerations to the wind, the governor pursued the doomed effort. In the end, all that was accomplished was a magnification of his inability to find a more politically acceptable approach.

In the spring of this election year a group of large businesses and business groups joined in urging the Legislature to expand Michigan’s anti-discrimination Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation. To many social conservatives, that is a step toward recognition of gay marriage. With friends like these business interests, Gov. Snyder has no need of enemies.

Reluctantly drawn into the debate, he lent his support to adding sexual orientation to the law, risking alienation of an important voting block he might otherwise have counted on. Suggesting the possible change to the Act be placed on the ballot and decided by the voters would have been a politically safer position for him to have taken.

Recent polling shows Gov. Snyder’s support among Republicans has slipped to just 82 percent. Meanwhile, Schauer is undoubtedly beginning to convince potential financial supporters that his gubernatorial bid is worth backing.

(Editor’s note: Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Michigan Capitol Confidential and a veteran Lansing-based journalist. His columns do not necessarily represent the views of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy or Michigan Capitol Confidential.)


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