Howes: Whitmer's call for compromise belies confrontational era

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's call for compromise in a divided Lansing comes amid era of hyper-partisan confrontation.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is playing the cards Michigan voters dealt her the only way she can.

In a nod to the political realities of divided government in Lansing, Whitmer used her inaugural address Tuesday to urge compromise, to promise she’ll be “a governor for everyone,” to remind that “Michigan’s problems are not partisan.”

Partisans on both sides of the aisle would disagree, of course. That's because there are so many convenient targets to bolster their arguments: Democrats decry the Flint Water Crisis, denounce the Emergency Manager Law and condemn the so-called "retirement tax" on public pensions, all delivered courtesy of Gov. Rick Snyder and Republican majorities.

And Republicans tout a swift and consensual Detroit bankruptcy enabled by the EM law; hail corporate tax reform that made Michigan one of the nation's most competitive states for business; highlight solid job growth and bond ratings that signal renewed financial strength of the state following the global financial meltdown.

Delivering the bipartisanship Whitmer envisions and explaining why it matters will be a true test of her political acumen. Otherwise, the former state Senate minority leader-turned-governor risks presiding over the kind of gridlock that plagued the last Democrat to hold the CEO’s office, Jennifer Granholm, amid Republican control of the Legislature.

Compromise is a quaint concept in the current era of exerting raw political power to achieve baldly partisan ends. It's House Democrats who pass the Affordable Care Act in 2010 without a single Republican vote. It's House Republicans who pass the massive Trump tax cuts in 2017 without any Democrats. It's Lansing Republicans who wield their majority in 2012 to make the birthplace of the United Auto Workers a right-to-work state, among other things.

Compromise may be what the electorate purportedly wants. It may even be exactly what's signaled by its latest infatuation with divided government. But it's not so much what elected politicians actually do — and that's more or less as true in Lansing as it is in Washington.

Will Whitmer make a difference? It's a fact that she has more experience in the state Legislature than Granholm or Snyder, who both had none. She should understand the process, should know the value of relationships and identifying common ground. And because that's true, she'll have a lot fewer excuses should the next few legislative sessions devolve into partisan warfare achieving little.

The challenges for Whitmer and the Republican majorities are enormous, despite a state economy in better shape than any time since the turn of the millennium nearly two decades ago. Unemployment is plumbing record lows. Job creation is up. The auto industry is profitable, if unsettled.

Private-sector investment is continuing to transform Detroit, Michigan’s largest city, even as the efforts begin to spread into its harder-hit neighborhoods. Maintaining positive momentum will depend as much on continuing business-friendly signals from the new team in the governor's office as it will national signals on trade, tariffs, taxes and consumer demand.

On balance, Whitmer inherits a buoyant economy — precisely the conditions for Whitmer and legislative Republicans to walk the talk of bipartisanship in the name of tackling allegedly non-partisan problems. Proof will be in the doing and the (unlikely) absence of finger-pointing.

Educational attainment for Michigan's public-school students is an embarrassment that appears to be getting worse. Deteriorating roads and infrastructure rattle the political right and left with equal bone-jarring measure. And Detroit's automakers are planning sweeping restructurings this year that will hit Michigan's economy. How Whitmer reacts will be revealing.

In the general-election campaign, the governor's opponent, Attorney General Bill Schuette, made the tactical error of equating his rival Democrat with Granholm. I cringed the first time I heard the ad, laden as it was with thinly veiled misogyny conflating the recession and collapse of the Detroit auto industry a decade ago with the opposite today.

Whitmer takes office facing radically different times than Granholm in 2003 or Snyder in 2011, when two of three Detroit automakers remained under some semblance of federal control; the UAW was barred by federal bailout conditions from striking; and Michigan was burdened by undisciplined budgeting, reduced spending on K-12 education and anti-business tax policy.

Comparatively better times should mean more opportunity to get some critical things done and worry about who gets the credit later. Old-fashioned, I know. But still true.

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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.