Opinion: GOP must legislate in 2019

Dennis Lennox
Lennox writes: "Whitmer’s biggest advantage is her party’s unified control of the executive branch."

Gretchen Whitmer won but the governor-elect doesn’t have a mandate. Rather, it’s the Republicans with their majorities in both houses of the state Legislature who will legislate.

Whitmer is neither king nor prime minister. She will have to deal with what the French call cohabitation because it’s the job of legislators to legislate and it’s the job of the governor to faithfully execute laws as legislated.

Democrats will predictably cry obstructionism if Republicans say no to Whitmer’s agenda. They would have a point if Republicans were the minority, but they aren’t.

Republicans under Speaker of the House-designee Lee Chatfield and Senate Majority Leader-designee Mike Shirkey mustn’t forget they alone are in control. Just as they should respect the governor’s prerogatives she should respect the first branch of state government.

Admittedly, maintaining caucus discipline will be no easy feat. The majority caucuses will be come under immense pressure both from newspapers and milquetoast business interests to go along and get along. Bipartisanship will be the new buzzword.

In many ways this was the GOP’s biggest problem during the governorship of Jennifer Granholm, when the House flipped-and-flopped between the parties but the Senate remained in Republican control. Granholm could always count on a couple of Republicans to defy their party on a critical vote.

Unlike then, however, the incoming Republican caucuses are much more conservative. There are no liberal GOP legislators for Whitmer to pick off, as Granholm did with the likes of then-Reps. Ed Gaffney and Chris Ward.

Then there’s the ugly reality of term limits, which have wreaked havoc since their adoption in 1992. Both Chatfield and Shirkey are term-limited the moment they assume leadership. Moreover, neither have any statewide presence or machinery behind them.

Whitmer’s biggest advantage is her party’s unified control of the executive branch. Next year will be the first time since 1990 that Democrats have occupied all the great offices of state; governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and secretary of state. Without a single statewide officeholder the Michigan Republican Party has no leader of the opposition to serve as Whitmer’s foil. This will be most visible when Whitmer gives her first state of the state address, as there will surely be an internal party debate over who should give the Republican response.

Outgoing Rep. Laura Cox, wife of Granholm-era GOP Attorney General Mike Cox, could assume the role if, as expected, she wins the party chairmanship. But it would require her to undo the precedent set by the last three chairmen, who generally abstained from legislative debates and never used the threat of withholding party resources from anyone who didn’t vote the Republican line.

At the end of the day, Whitmer has a math problem. Yes, she’s governor but Republicans have the votes to make or break her governorship.

One of two things are bound to happen. Either Chatfield and Shirkey will maintain caucus discipline with the help of the next GOP chairman or the party will become its own worst enemy and the majority caucuses will break ranks and supply Democrats with votes for Whitmer’s agenda.

Dennis Lennox is a political commentator and public affairs consultant.