Mackinac Island — Behind all the talk about regional cooperation is a maxim presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin sees clearly: Without leadership, there is no partnership.
Nowhere, she said in an interview before her keynote Thursday at the Detroit Regional Chamber's Mackinac Policy Conference, is that more historically true than in Detroit. That is where President Franklin Roosevelt turned once U.S. involvement in World War II became inevitable, where he adroitly softened his New Deal-era antipathy to business because he and the country needed them.
"It was the most magnificent partnership in the history of the country," Goodwin says. "He knew then that he had to stop his war with business. The fact that it happened in your state and so much in your city should remind us that these things can really happen."
But now, as then, partnership requires pragmatism and compromise, a willingness to subordinate ideological rigor to practical, long-term and sustainable solutions — preferably without petty political concerns or the implied hammer of a federal bankruptcy judge. That's proving easier said than done.
More than 1,600 business and political powerbrokers are descending on the annual policy conference here, turbo-charged by the sense that Michigan and its bellwether city are rising again. Automakers are profitable; business is investing; the state unemployment rate mirrors the national average; Detroit is out of bankruptcy, attracting billions in private-sector investment.
All good, despite a lingering sense of anxiety here evoked by the gloomy mist and drenching rain pelting the island. With heavy political and business lifting done — the bankruptcy, the "grand bargain" between private donors and the state Legislature — smart people understand major challenges on roads and Detroit Public Schools loom.
Worse, without the imminent crises of the past few years, the public-private ties forged in bankruptcy show signs of weakening. Business supports more "revenue" (i.e., taxes) to repair broken roads and infrastructure; the Legislature mostly doesn't. Business backs recommendations to reform Detroit's schools; the Legislature doesn't. And it's unclear whether or how Gov. Rick Snyder is willing to flex the muscle necessary to get it done.
Solutions? Not so much, judging more by what the Republican majority is doing than saying, whatever business leaders say they want. Replacement road packages to the aborted roads ballot question so far are failing to get traction, even as proposals to gut economic development programs (and unilaterally disarm in the state-by-state battle for new investment) remain politically viable.
A package of education reform, focused on Detroit and systemic problems statewide, is getting the slow walk. Want more evidence that a crisis around here is not a crisis unless it's accompanied by words like recession, bankruptcy and default? This is it, again.
"I perceive Lansing is not listening, especially the Legislature," says John Rakolta Jr., chairman of Walbridge Co., the Detroit-based construction firm, and co-chair of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren. "The Detroit Public School system is bankrupt. Totally bankrupt.
"You can do something today for far less cost than if you stuck your head in the sand and do nothing. The state is stuck with this problem. This isn't just about Detroit. You can't go from 13th to 43rd (nationwide in fourth-grade reading attainment) and say, 'just look at how good things are.' How much further in the mud do we have to get stuck before we say this is a crisis of epic proportion?"
Further, apparently, barring an exercise of leadership from the governor, legislative leaders or the business community. That takes leaders who understand the job of leadership and can adapt their communication style to the times, just as Abraham Lincoln mastered the long-form speech, Theodore Roosevelt the punchy language of his day, FDR the radio and Reagan the TV era.
Effective leaders inspire "people to common action, hopefully for values that enhance the university, the company or the country that you're leading, so that the power you have as a leader is being wielded for positive purposes," Goodwin says. They also seek compromise if it is the price for getting things done.
Lincoln steered a middle course between Abolitionists and pro-slavery forces. TR's "Square Deal" walked a line between radical reformers and conservatives opposed to change. FDR tacked toward business when he needed the industrial heft to create the Arsenal of Democracy.
What will Michigan's leaders do? The existential crises of automotive and municipal bankruptcies, of punishing unemployment and plant closings, of epic corruption and dysfunction at City Hall may be past. Singular problems with the potential to derail the progress and improved image are not.
Remember our history, Goodwin says: "When we've made big transformations, we can do it. That'll help us to know" — and to have confidence — "that maybe we can do it again."
Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at http://detroitnews.com/staff/27151.