Commentary: Snyder and Richard Nixon

Jul 9, 2012

The other day, I was thinking that if Governor Snyder wants to leave a lasting mark on this state, he might want to try to be more like Richard Nixon. Now, before you are offended, let me explain.

There were actually two Nixons. The one we tend to remember today is the scheming architect of dirty tricks, the foul-mouthed paranoid who bugged himself, and whose worst utterances were captured forever on the famous White House tapes.

Nobody wants to see the second coming of that. But there was also another Nixon, a brilliant architect of innovative foreign and domestic policies that stunned both friend and enemy.

That was the Nixon who reestablished a relationship with the People’s Republic of China, something many of us do remember. But that Nixon also conceived of and pushed through the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act and other progressive legislation. Nor was that an accident. Nixon wanted to model himself after the great conservative British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli.

He once said that “Tory men and liberal policies are what have changed the world.” He reasoned that someone like himself, whose conservative credentials were well established, could sell innovative policies like the opening to China in a way no liberal ever could.

Well, I have no idea to what extent Rick Snyder shares that philosophy, or if he even knows that Nixon thought that way.

But I do know this: He’s managed to do a version of that by finding a way to build the badly needed new bridge with Canada, by using a little-known provision in the state constitution allowing him to make an inter-local agreement for a major capital project.

We also know, from his sensible vetoing of several election law bills last week, that he is not a total prisoner of ideology.

So in the unlikely event that the governor asked my advice on what to do next, here it is: Find a way to transcend party and ideology to construct a new model for education in this state.

I’m not talking just about funding, though it is clear what we have now isn’t working any longer. Nor am I talking only about delivery systems, though it is clear that these are also not really working, either for elementary and high school or higher education. We need a system in which all Michigan students can find an affordable way of getting the education they need, according to their aptitudes. Education that will make them well-rounded citizens, but also prepare them to make a living in the modern economy.

Now I am aware that defining this is easier than doing it, but it is essential. Somehow, we have to stop giving short shrift to what we still call vocational education, and recognize the skills needed to become a master plumber or a welder or a mechanic, and accord those professional choices the dignity they deserve.

Doing this will cost us money. But not doing it will ultimately doom our society to a form of class warfare and collapse.

Democrats and liberals these days don’t have the clout or credibility to get us to spend more on education. But a self-made millionaire Republican “tough nerd” just might.

For all our sakes, I wish he’d give it a try.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Political Analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.