Donald Trump and Michigan’s sitting governor, both Republicans, couldn’t have more disparate views on the state’s rebound.
Smack in the middle of this fall’s presidential race, Rick Snyder is running ads touting the state’s “comeback,” his leadership, Detroit’s revival and the need to maintain GOP control of the Legislature to keep the economic momentum going.
Yet Trump, in one of his early volleys at Monday’s debate with Hillary Clinton, once again repeated a far darker take on the state that mostly isn’t true. Michigan leads the nation in creating manufacturing jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, posting a net-gain of 167,500 jobs. The state boasts an unemployment rate lower than the national average. And Detroit’s automakers are doing better than any time since the 1960s.
“So Ford is leaving,” Trump said in the opening segment of the 90-minute debate. “You see that, their small-car division leaving. Thousands of jobs leaving Michigan, leaving Ohio.”
Not exactly. Ford Motor Co.’s decision to move production of its compact Focus and hybrid models to Mexico from its plant in Wayne — telegraphed more than a year ago — does not leave hourly workers there without products to build. Nor does it “kill” their jobs. They will be assembling a small Ranger pickup and a revived Bronco SUV, meaning the number of jobs lost in Michigan will be zero.
Trump’s Ford riff signals the continuing importance Michigan, its hometown auto industry and the industrial Midwest are likely to play in the campaign until Election Day — and point to the voter base he is targeting. But the disconnect between reality and Trump’s version of it is not playing well within a Michigan business community steeled by hard times and grateful for the progress since.
They don’t appreciate Trump’s continual demonization of Ford. Or his gross mischaracterization of its plans to relocate small-car production to Mexico. Or his promise to levy tariffs on Mexico-built metal and to rework established trade deals, both implied threats to a business status quo here that’s taken time, bipartisanship and hard work to rebuild.
“The bash on Michigan by Trump is ridiculous,” says Dan Loepp, CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. “For him to say what he said is not true, and on top of that to besmirch Ford is ridiculous — a, it’s not true and b, it’s not fair.”
This year’s election cycle is proving particularly tricky for business leaders, as one CEO described it: those opting to back Clinton are doing so sheepishly; those opting for Trump are doing so privately because he’s considered toxic in polite political circles; and polarization into radically opposed camps is posing fraught challenges for businesses who seek customers from across the political spectrum.
Alienating would-be customers and partners is no wiser, the calculation goes, than openly opposing a nominee who could be president come Jan. 20. Not when the regulatory and legislative reach of the federal government extends so deeply into so many business sectors, from retail and banking to manufacturing, energy and so much more.
More than a few CEOs declined to discuss Monday’s debate or the race on the record because “no good will come from it,” in the words of one prominent chief executive. Trump, especially, has a demonstrated tendency to attack critics, and the Clinton machine is known to be no less tough on its detractors, albeit with more subtlety than the rhetorical sledgehammer wielded by its opponent.
“No one was talking to the moveable middle” Monday night, says Sandy Baruah, president of the Detroit Regional Chamber and head of the Small Business Administration under President George W. Bush. “Business people are staying far, far away from the race — at least publicly.”
One reason: neither the emerging neo-protectionist slant of Trump’s GOP nor the leftward drift of Clinton’s Democratic Party offers a comfortable philosophical home for business leaders who cannot risk publicly alienating customers, business partners, even members of their own boards of directors.
The traditional alliance between business and the Republican party has been disappearing over the past eight years. Credit first the global financial meltdown, second the tea party wave of 2010 with its antipathy for crony capitalism, and now Trump’s populist revolt against current and proposed trade deals.
And the relative pragmatism of Bill Clinton’s economic policies is morphing steadily into a centralized federal bureaucracy that aims to control everything from health care and automotive fuel economy to how much private companies can pay their people. Little noticed Monday was Hillary Clinton’s implication that her administration would push companies to pay profit-sharing to their employees, a potential usurpation that could have profound implications for how companies pay everyone from the CEO to entry-level employees.
As powerful as CEOs may appear, many run businesses they neither own nor control. The chief executives are answerable to shareholders, directors and investors. They’re also increasingly vulnerable to the bullying tactics of politicians and activists — all of it turbocharged by social media and a pitiless internet-fueled news cycle that never sleeps.
“We’re not getting any solutions,” says Matt Simoncini, CEO of Lear Corp., a Southfield-based auto supplier. “Nothing. It’s just gridlock. I really have not heard any policy discussions. Extremism in both parties is keeping any compromise from happening. I don’t think either party is representing the middle well.”
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN. Listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.