A colleague returned from a strategy meeting in Lansing and reported signs of panic setting in. Some of our friends who depend on political victories for their livelihood are losing their nerve because the party that usually favors free markets faces strong political headwinds this year. I'm reminded of Buzz Lightyear and Sheriff Woody facing apparent doom in the 1995 movie “Toy Story.” Buzz the heroic optimist admonishes Woody, "… This is no time to panic!" Woody flails his arms and shouts in defiance, "This is the perfect time to panic!"
Woody had a point, but his panicking didn't save the day. Historic patterns suggest this year's mid-term elections were always going to be tough for Republicans — and here are some more reasons why they are quaking.
At the top of the list is Donald J. Trump. For better and worse, and like it or not, any president is the face of his party for most voters, even for state-level elections. And this president is almost uniquely divisive for those on the left (and some on the right), and mercurial for all. The 2018 elections are shaping up as a referendum on DJT so anyone running as an “R” on the ballot, no matter where they stand on policy, will be treated by voters as a proxy for Trump. If the president is doing well at the time of the election, his party is likely to do well. But if he isn’t, his party will likely do poorly. In this sense the Michigan elections will be nationalized.
The GOP is divided and some within it are demoralized. Not completely and not irreparably, but the situation seems new and unsettling to those with fewer years of experience in politics and those prone to short-term thinking.
A number of special elections around the country of late have produced Democratic victors or very strong performances by Democrats. Several Republican members of Congress who face competitive races are retiring rather than risking defeat. House Speaker Paul Ryan, one of the few politicians to produce a serious plan to control entitlement spending, will not seek re-election.
The political opposition is motivated and energized to a fever pitch. And in Michigan, there is some level of plain old fatigue with nearly eight years of Republican control of the governor's office, both houses of the Legislature, the officially nonpartisan Supreme Court, plus the offices of secretary of state and attorney general.
Maybe all that sounds like Sheriff Woody's "perfect time to panic" for Republicans or those who see the GOP as the best political vehicle at the moment for many desirable policy outcomes. But it's not. Consider this column to be a distant early warning to check the spread of panic from the inner circles of the political class to Mackinac Center supporters and others who put their trust in ideas. Panic, like pessimism, tends to bring about bad outcomes.
There are solid reasons for optimism. The strengthening economy is especially noticeable in Michigan. (The current national economic expansion, though weaker than others, is also the longest ever.) It's now almost too late for a recession to begin, and be recognized as such, before November. President Trump's support remains surprisingly strong in spite of his erratic behavior and speech. Many of his policies are helping the people he promised to help and they know it. Eight years of Republican control in Michigan is still producing remarkable policy results that help lift the entire state. Democrats are galvanized against Republicans but far from united behind anyone or anything.
As for us, if political insiders continue to panic, so what? They're not always right, as Trump's election so dramatically proved.
Why must a policy institute concern itself with political considerations? Because all policy moves through a political process. If the political environment changes, our approach may change. But our goals won’t. Ideas are paramount, not politics, parties or personalities. No one who follows our work will confuse us with a reflexive defender or opponent of any particular political party. A party may shift to defense when it finds itself in the minority, but you can count on the Mackinac Center to stay on offense for free markets, limited government and individual liberty, no matter the party and no matter what.