Commentary: Struggle for a Party’s Soul

Jun 3, 2013

There were, in a way, two conferences taking place among the state’s business and political elite on Mackinac Island last week. One was a celebration of Michigan’s comeback from the darkest days of the great recession, and of the new business-friendly climate flourishing under Governor Rick Snyder.

Make no mistake about it: Richard Dale Snyder is the most business-oriented governor this state has had since World War II. That’s in large part because he is a businessman.

He speaks their language. During his closing remarks, the governor sounded like a motivational speaker sent out to fire up a sluggish sales force.  “What’s the role of government?” he asked, answering, “Government exists to give you great customer service!”

My guess is that ninety percent of those who paid to attend the conference plan to enthusiastically vote for Snyder next year.

But beneath the surface, a war is going on for the soul and the future of the Republican Party. On one side are the Rick Snyders. Willing to smash unions if necessary and pander to the far right on social issues if they must. Think motorcycle helmet law.

But at bottom, deeply practical and pragmatic, especially as far as business interests are concerned.

If the infrastructure is wearing out, you find a way to pay for it and fix it. If business needs a new bridge, you build it. If corporations need rapid transit buses to get workers across town, you find a way to get it done. And if the federal government offers to provide medical coverage to half a million of your citizens at no or minimal cost to your state, you jump on it.

None of these things would have been very controversial once. But today, a large part of Snyder’s party is either ideological, anti-intellectual, or both. They hate taxes, hate government health care, hate President Obama,  and even hate, fear, and distrust the federal government itself.

That can be seen perhaps most clearly in their refusal to accept the Common Core Curriculum education standards, which they often portray falsely as an attempt by Washington to tell local school boards and parents what to do.

In reality, Common Core started as an initiative by the nation’s governors, most of whom are Republicans.

This split in the GOP may be the most important political struggle in Michigan today. And the pragmatists are losing.

Whether by accident or design, all the national speakers the Detroit Regional Chamber brought to Mackinac were conservative Republicans who are on Rick Snyder’s side in this war.

Jeb Bush told Michigan Republicans they needed to accept and court immigrants. Joe Scarborough praised Snyder and denounced the know-nothings in Congress, and Michelle Rhee and Bush both told the conference it was time to get real about Common Core.

Whether they got through to those who influence the legislature isn’t yet clear. But there were a couple of guys at Mackinac who wouldn’t mind seeing the GOP alienate voters.

They are Lon Johnson, the new Democratic state chair, and Mark Schauer, the Democrats’ candidate forgovernor next year.

They know things could be very good for them,if the wrong side wins the Republican Party’s civil war.

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.