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Howes: Whitmer's 'Plan B' shows legislative cred is a bust

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Gretchen Whitmer arrived in the governor’s office a year ago promising to be something her past two predecessors were not: a veteran legislator who could work with the other party to get things done.

Turns out that’s not true. Instead of delivering grand compromises with Republican leaders in the state House and Senate, the governor adopted the unilateral tactics so popular in Washington nowadays. And the $3.5 billion bond plan to repair Michigan’s crumbling roads, touted in her second State of the State address, is a prime example.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her the State of the State address on Wednesday.

She blamed “political gridlock.” She decried “inaction.” She declared GOP suggestions to divert teacher pension money, or sell bridges to raise cash to fill potholes, “not serious.” And she’s exactly right.

Enter her “Plan B.” It's her one-sided executive response to the chronic, years-long Republican inability to reach any meaningful (let alone sweeping) roads compromise with the past two governors, including their own Republican governor, Rick Snyder.

Where’s the wily legislative veteran-turned-governor, the person who would work with lawmakers from the other party to "fix the damn roads" and reach long-term solutions for deep problems? Short answer: she’s bailing on the deal-making part because Plan A turned out to be the political equivalent of walking into a brick wall.

Whitmer is discovering what her Democratic predecessor, Jennifer Granholm, and the past two U.S. presidents learned the hard way: Bipartisan comity in our tribal age is a cruel joke. It’s far better to talk about than deliver, especially when the other side thinks it’ll pay no political price for using the most popular word in politics today: no.

And given how polarized politics are today in Lansing and Washington, the just-say-no corner has it pretty much right — as the archly partisan impeachment trial of President Donald Trump demonstrates.

Steep political prices are paid today for saying yes, for working with the other side, for trying to transcend petty partisan considerations to get things done. Such heresy is greeted with condemnation and threats of primary challenges, all of it fueled by social media and demonization of the other side.

So Whitmer is doing what any self-preserving chief executive does these days — using her pen to go around the Legislature and parry the partisan fight. Given the alternative, it’s arguably a legitimate move. But it’s not sustainable — particularly if it a) validates Republican warnings about increasing the state’s debt load and b) exposes the governor’s authoritarian bent.

The first casualty is the governor’s credibility. The second is her alleged reputation as a veteran dealmaker. Neither Granholm nor Snyder had legislative chops or the knack for wielding fear as a motivator — and it showed.

Whitmer was supposed to change that. But 13 months in she’s fallen short, overshadowed by an ideologically driven attorney general, a comparatively thin record of accomplishment and Team Trump's intense focus on Michigan as the top battleground state in the general election.

Not encouraging, as business leaders privately lament. They see a governor struggling to deliver her vision; struggling to manage fraught relations with Republicans; struggling to seize the moment facing both her administration, the state and its outsize role in the Trump re-elect effort.

In his visit Thursday to a Dana Inc. plant in Warren, the president detailed a list of what the banner behind him called “promises kept.” There’s the replacement for NAFTA, new automotive investment in Detroit, rising incomes, 50-year low unemployment, and investment to renovate the Soo Locks, critical to both national security and Great Lakes trade.

Trump also gave Michigan's Selfridge Air National Guard Base a "strong edge" to win deployment of the F-35 fighter, yet more evidence that Whitmer’s Michigan promises to be ground zero in the presidential race — a fact that is prompting Trump to claim credit for certain jobs-creating investments he didn't make.  

Same for Whitmer, who's been tapped by party leaders to give the Democratic response to Trump's State of the Union address next week. She’s touting automotive investments in Detroit, understandable for any governor looking for some economic credit. But the simple facts are that decisions on both Ford Motors’ Corktown campus play and Fiat Chrysler’s new Detroit Jeep plant came during the Snyder tenure.

Whitmer needs to notch some wins of her own, preferably by forging the consensus with Republicans she promised. Otherwise, the president of the United States will claim the best pieces of Michigan's reinvention story to burnish his case, leaving the governor on the outside looking in.

daniel.howes@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs most Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN. Or listen to his Saturday podcasts at detroitnews.com or on Michigan Radio, 91.7 FM.