How bad a governor is Gretchen Whitmer? Let’s just say what everyone with a memory or knowledge of Michigan’s past already knows — she’s historically bad.
In fact, she’s the worst Michigan governor since World War II, with the possible exception of Republican Kim Sigler, who served a single term before getting knocked off by Democrat G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams in 1948.
And that’s not because of Whitmer’s handling of the state’s response to the interminable COVID-19 pandemic, although surely she has mismanaged that. Whether her policies “saved lives” we will never know, but she certainly has destroyed businesses, damaged public education, ruined peoples’ livelihoods, and injured their physical and mental health. The recent WalletHub report documented this as well as any study done so far — it ranked Michigan dead last out of 50 states and the District of Columbia in how well we have emerged from our war with the coronavirus. It didn’t have to be this bad — the incoherence, unpredictability, and internal contradictions of Whitmer’s unilateral mandates have been apparent to all, even while she didn’t follow her own edicts.
Michiganders learned that she doesn’t abide by the same arbitrary rules she’s imposed on every resident of Michigan. She shunned masks when she’s with her friends. She was caught red-handed violating her own social distancing guidelines.
She ordered us not to travel, not to see our families, not to leave our homes, only to hop on a private jet and fly down in secret to Florida to visit with her supposedly ailing father, the well-known retired insurance executive, Dick Whitmer.
After trying to cover up her Florida junket, Whitmer refused to answer the most basic questions about it. She wouldn’t tell us when she left, when she returned, how she got there, or most importantly, who paid for her trip. The reluctant news media, which wanted to protect her, finally was embarrassed into digging up the truth. That didn’t look pretty, either.
Of course, Whitmer is a woman, and some of her apologists contend that any criticism of the governor is rank misogyny. But, compared with Whitmer, Jennifer Granholm was a combination of Winston Churchill and Joan of Arc.
Ironically, Granholm did better with a far worse hand than Whitmer. Granholm inherited a bad Michigan economy and it never got better than mediocre before it disintegrated completely in the 2008-10 Great Recession. But, even though she had far less government experience than Whitmer, Granholm had a better temperament, and she didn’t come into office with a chip on her shoulder — embittered, as Whitmer was, by 14 years in a legislative minority. Whitmer never learned how to be a legislator; instead, she carved out a niche as a bomb-thrower, aiming a steady stream of invective at her Republican opposition. Whitmer sponsored only three bills that became law during her tenure, but she stored up resentment that she has unleashed in a “revenge tour” during her two and a half years as governor.
Fact is, Whitmer hasn’t handled much of anything with competence. She was dragged kicking and screaming to a deal with the Legislature on auto insurance rate reform. She mishandled her negotiations with the state House and Senate on the 2019-20 budget, then set an all-time record for line item vetoes that wreaked havoc with state government finances for six months afterwards. She shuffled appropriations between departments in unprecedented fashion, extending “executive privilege” as it was never intended and has only done long-term damage. Angry that the Republican majority in the Legislature wouldn’t negotiate with her on raising the state’s gasoline tax (which she swore in her 2018 campaign she would not do, at least by 45 cents a gallon), she undertook to rack up millions of dollars in debt by floating bonds to “fix the damn roads” without legislative input. Without warning, she continues a steady stream of vetoes, even of bills with almost unanimous Democratic legislative support.
Line 5? Whitmer has taken a nebulous situation and made it worse. Criminal prosecutions in the Flint Water Crisis? The governor and her attorney general sidekick, Dana Nessel, are screwing the pooch there, too. And has any governor expressed less interest in the state’s economy than Whitmer? That’s been a key component of every Michigan governor’s agenda during the past six decades. Nobody can forget Jim Blanchard’s mantra of “Job, jobs, jobs!” From Whitmer? Crickets.
But clearly Whitmer has been luckier than good. She is being bailed out now by waves of anti-COVID stimulus money from Washington that should solve the state’s fiscal problems for years to come, unless she bungles that, too. And she’s been fortunate in her enemies. First, Donald Trump, whose long-running unpopularity in Michigan after his narrow 2016 surprise win provided a perfect foil for Whitmer. This governor does best playing off perceived antagonists, whether they are legislative Republicans or a bombastic, polarizing politician like Trump, who delighted in giving Whitmer as good as he got. But now Trump is gone, and she can’t use his obstruction or incompetence in the White House as an excuse for her own failings.
Now, she seems to have gotten a second break — the nature of her Republican opposition if or when she seeks re-election next year.
The record number of faceless Republicans lining up to take on Whitmer — whether they’re somewhat well-known names like James Craig or Mike Cox or zeros on the Voter ID scorecard like Tudor Dixon, Kevin Rinke, Ryan Kelley, Garrett Soldano, Ralph Rebandt, Austin Chenge, Evan Space, and Bob Scott — remind us to paraphrase the old Ronald Reagan joke, i.e. “There must be a pony in there somewhere,” In other words, a credible, well-rounded GOP nominee with some financial resources.
But there is no George Romney or John Engler or even Rick Snyder in sight in this group. And no incumbent governor in Michigan history, of either major party, has EVER been defeated when seeking election to a second four-year term. Yes, after Sigler, Democrat John Swainson lost to Romney in 1962, but those were in the days of two-year terms. Yes, Democrat Jim Blanchard lost in 1990 to Engler, but Blanchard had already WON a second four-year term. A 1990 win would have given him a THIRD term. Bill Milliken and Engler won all three times they ran for four-year terms. In fact, their first re-elections were by bigger margins than their initial wins. Ditto Granholm. Snyder also won re-election in 2014, before he was term-limited.
So, even though she doesn’t deserve it, Whitmer is almost a lock to be re-elected next year.
The Michigan Democratic Party must realize it’s got a turkey to protect and have resorted to a “Gray Davis Strategy” — that’s where a political party, say, the California Democrats in 2002, unleashes a torrent of pre-primary negative ads against possible Republican candidates who want to unhorse an unpopular incumbent Democratic governor. In fact, the California Dems actually paid for attack ads against the perceived strongest GOP candidate in the Republican field, bolstering the weakest. It worked, at least temporarily. The strongest GOP candidate fell short in his primary, and Davis managed to win in the general election. He lasted a year before a famous recall campaign ousted him from office and replaced him with Arnold “The Terminator” Schwarzenegger. This year, Michigan Democrats haven’t spent any cash in a still-to-take-shape Republican primary — yet. But, based on the deluge of press releases released by the Democrats’ front office in Lansing that demean every conceivable candidate in the GOP field, that would be a logical next step in a Whitmer re-election campaign.
The Democrats can probably save their money.