Howes: In Snyder v. Trump, facts back Michigan, Detroit

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Rick Snyder is taking flak from fellow Republicans for daring over the weekend to correct presidential nominee Donald Trump’s dark take on Detroit and the state of Michigan manufacturing.

He shouldn’t because the facts favor the sitting governor. However frequently truth takes a long holiday in the cage match between Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, the arc of decline and revival defining Detroit, Michigan and its hometown auto industry over the past eight years deserves telling as a story of American redemption — not another riff on Loserville.

Michigan manufacturing is not the “disaster” described by Trump. Mexico is not likely to supplant the United States as the heart or brains of the North American auto industry anytime soon. Encouraging plant expansion to the non-union South is no way to win friends and influence people inside union halls or the United Auto Workers’ headquarters at Solidarity House, the very people ol’ Trump aims to woo.

Wanna be president and need Michigan’s 16 electoral votes to do it? A good place to start would be to cautiously celebrate, not mock or distort, Detroit’s qualified revival and the role of manufacturing in it. To match rhetoric with reality. To understand that voters here appreciate candidates who can differentiate the “disasters” of the 1980s and ’90s from the implosion of 2008 and its aftermath.

This place has come too far since the days of bailout, bankruptcy and ridicule to let stand ignorance and cheap shots from either party. Or for the Trump camp to think it can turn skepticism and opposition into support by distorting the facts (a bipartisan practice in presidential years) and planning to campaign here over Labor Day weekend.

He’s welcome to try. But sweeping mischaracterizations of manufacturing, the Detroit-based auto industry and the conditions of African-Americans are building a steep metaphoric hill for Trump to climb. His pugnacious style is not the kind of middle-of-the-road Republicanism (think Snyder and former Gov. Bill Millikin) likely to generate crossover appeal among Michigan Democrats, the black community or both.

The only issue is whether you’re talking about the past 35 years, long before the reckoning fueled by complacency and competition became inevitable. Or the past eight, when structural change to companies, union contracts and expectations of stability morphed into an undeniable scramble for an entire industry’s survival.

Since the global financial meltdown punctuated Michigan’s “Lost Decade,” the state has led the nation in creation of manufacturing jobs. The Detroit-based auto industry has reinvested billions in its core, if shrunken, U.S. business. And this town’s two largest players, General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co., are booking record U.S. profits and reporting operating margins north of 10 percent.

Between 2009 and last month, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, Michigan manufacturers created 165,700 jobs for a total of 604,200. That’s still well below the 892,100 jobs the sector tallied in 2000, long before a serious rationalization took place. Since 2009, the auto industry has added 63,000 jobs in the state.

If that’s failure, we’ll take more. Reviving the good ol’ days, as Trump and Clinton imply with vows to reopen the North American Free Trade Agreement, will do no such thing in a global market where capital flows globally. Without capital, the industry will not function, as this town, its people and the UAW learned the hard way in 2008.

It’s true that Detroit lost manufacturing jobs after passage of the NAFTA in 1993. It’s also true that Detroit’s auto industry, between then and 2008, consistently lost U.S. market share to foreign-owned competition; fielded mediocre car lines and bet its entire business on pickups and SUVs; carried excess plant capacity and people it didn’t need but paid for nonetheless. NAFTA or an epic failure of management and labor?

Detroit, a city cleansed by the kind of Chapter 9 procedure a serial bankrupt like Trump should love, is on a narrow path to financial sustainability. The private sector, unofficially led by mortgage mogul Dan Gilbert, is investing billions to redevelop downtown and Midtown. Political leadership in City Hall is more aligned than any time in decades, and its posture toward business and developers generally is less adversarial than most anyone can remember.

Perfect? No. Free of violent crime? No. Able to supply a solid public education for its children? Often not. But Detroit’s reimagination (not a comeback, because there is no going back to the Old Detroit) is a process. It’s not a destination, and it’s not a guarantee.

The Detroit that Trump is scheduled to visit this weekend is less the place of lazy coastal caricature and more a place of reinvention and renewal. It’s a city where the Democratic mayor is more willing to work with Republicans in Lansing than any Detroit mayor in the past 40 years; where a Republican governor has assembled a record of assistance and advocacy not seen since Millikin was governor and Coleman Young was mayor.

“Hopefully he has a chance to see Michigan’s comeback in Detroit — and the rest of Michigan,” Snyder said over the weekend, referring to Trump’s planned visit on Saturday. “We’ve made a huge economic comeback after the Lost Decade.”

It should be no surprise to GOP delegates to the state convention that Snyder, Mr. Relentless Positive Action, is not voicing support for Trump. They may both be CEOs, and they may both be the “business guys” their backers wanted, but Snyder’s RPA, Trump’s Trumpism and the two men could not be more different.

That should be surprising only to whoever isn’t paying attention.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.