Attorney General Bill Schuette says Michigan “is the center of the universe” in the final hours of the presidential campaign. He’s right.
That shouldn’t be surprising in a place roiled by repeated reckonings with its past, with its dysfunction and with the globalization it’s proven mostly unable to control. Being ground zero for epic bankruptcies and waves of layoffs, federal bailouts and the largest industrial restructuring in American history, can do that.
It also could confound political assumptions that Michigan this year would remain a reliable brick in the Democrats’ so-called “Blue Wall.” Maybe it will, if the Real Clear Politics polling average showing Hillary Clinton leading Donald Trump in Michigan holds.
But the fact that Clinton and Trump, President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton are working the state up to Election Day shows how much the Michigan experience matters: its contraction and uncertainty, etched deeply in the civil psyche, reflect the central economic anxiety of our time.
It demonstrates the transcendent political power of economic nationalism in the age of globalism. It’s a nominally partisan message that Trump wielded effectively in the Republican primaries, that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders used to upset Clinton in Michigan’s Democratic primary, and that Trump is trying to use to pull an upset in the state that hasn’t backed a Republican for president since 1988.
The trade skepticism of Trump (and Sanders) cuts across party lines in the industrial heartland of Michigan and Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana. It resonates with Joe and Jane Lunchbucket, who instinctively blame the real effects of globalization on dodgy trade deals and heartless CEOs — not bad management, work rules and costly union contracts, or the pitiless realities of competition.
What the Lunchbuckets know is that automakers employ far fewer in their plants than they did when Obama took office in early 2009; that mammoth suppliers like Delphi Automotive PLC are headquartered overseas and no longer operate any United Auto Workers-represented plants in the United States, thanks in part to a bankruptcy exit engineered by the Obama auto task force.
They know that Michigan may be leading the nation in creating manufacturing jobs since the end of the Great Recession. They also know the pace of recovery still falls way short of the total number of jobs lost over the past decade because the numbers say as much.
They’ve heard that President Clinton signed the North American Free-Trade Agreement blamed for far too many failures of Detroit’s auto industry; that Hillary Clinton is a tepid opponent to NAFTA and the Obama-era Trans-Pacific Partnership; that Trump is making bigger promises than any would-be president could deliver in the real world of international commerce.
They can see that Detroit’s automakers may be reinvesting in their U.S. plants. Led by General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co., they’re also investing billions to build new plants and create new jobs in Mexico, hires that will not be made in Michigan or Indiana.
Trump is loose with the facts when it comes to, say, Ford’s small-cars-to-Mexico gambit, but he’s channeling the anxiety perfectly. And that dovetails with the message Sanders used to hammer Clinton in the Michigan primary — and the Clinton campaign knows it.
If the message sells in reliably blue Michigan, how successful could it be on Election Day in Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania, all critical states on the road to the White House? If Trumpian nativism galvanizes working stiffs from Sterling Heights to Grand Rapids, won’t it play just as well outside Pittsburgh and in my native Northeast Ohio?
That explains Obama’s riff in Ann Arbor Monday. The sitting president who ordered GM and Chrysler Group LLC into bankruptcy warned autoworkers and others against being “bamboozled” because “Donald Trump is not the guy who’s going to look out for you.”
Obama continued: “Had the Big Three gone bankrupt, or two of the three gone bankrupt, that could have cost a million jobs across this country. That could have killed Michigan’s economy. But Donald Trump didn’t stop there. He actually suggested shipping Michigan’s auto jobs to states that don’t have unions so they can pay their workers less.”
Yes, he did — to the astonishment of the UAW and anyone, on the right or left, who understands the labor-management dynamics of the contemporary Detroit-based auto industry. But it also bears repeating, again, that Obama ordered GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy as a condition of their federal bailouts.
Today’s election in Michigan is not a referendum on the bailouts of seven-plus years ago. It’s whether a Republican champion of economic grievances will resonate with enough voters to breach the Democrats’ Blue Wall — which is why Clinton and the heaviest of her heavyweights spent parts of the campaign’s final day in Michigan.
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.