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Election 2016: Neither party feels like home for Michigan business leaders

Oct 1, 2016

Donald Trump’s trashing again this week of Ford Motor Company and Michigan’s economy isn’t playing well with state business leaders. That’s at least two reasons why many of them are choosing to sit out this year’s bizarre presidential race.

Yes, Trump’s debate riffs signal the importance of Michigan, the auto industry and the industrial Midwest.  But the disconnect between reality here and Trump’s version of it is flopping with CEOs steeled by hard times and grateful for the progress since.

They don’t appreciate Trump’s serial demonization of Ford. Or his distortion of its plans to relocate small-car production to Mexico. Or his promise to levy tariffs on Mexico-built metal and to rework established trade dealsn — both implied threats to a status quo that’s taken time, bipartisanship and hard work to rebuild.

Blue Cross CEO Dan Loepp says Trump’s “bash on Michigan … is ridiculous,” “not true, and “not fair.” And he’s not alone.

This year’s election cycle is proving tricky for business leaders. Those backing Democrat Hillary Clinton do so sheepishly. Those opting for Trump do so privately because he’s considered toxic in polite political circles. And the nation’s polarization is challenging because businesses court customers from across the political spectrum.

Alienating would-be customers, partners, even boards of directors, is no wiser than openly opposing a nominee who could be president come Jan. 20. Not when the regulatory and legislative reach of the federal government extends so deeply into so many business sectors.

More than a few CEOs declined to discuss the first debate or the race on the record because they said nothing good would come from it. Trump has a demonstrated tendency to attack critics. And the operators of the Clinton machine are known to be tough on detractors, too. They’re just more subtle.

Detroit Regional Chamber CEO Sandy Baruah says , quote, “Business people are staying far, far away from the race — at least publicly.”

One reason is that neither the emerging neo-protectionist slant of Trump’s GOP nor the leftward drift of Clinton’s Democratic Party offers a comfortable philosophical home for business leaders.

The traditional alliance between business and the Republican Party has been disappearing over the past eight years. Credit first the global financial meltdown. Second, the tea party wave of 2010 and its antipathy for crony capitalism. And now Trump’s populist revolt against trade deals and global manufacturing.

The relative pragmatism of Bill Clinton’s economic policies is morphing into a centralized federal bureaucracy bidding to control everything from health care to how much private companies can pay their people. Little noticed in Monday’s debate was Hillary Clinton’s promise to push companies to pay profit-sharing to their employees.

As powerful as CEOs appear, many run businesses they neither own nor control. The chief executives are answerable to shareholders, directors and investors. They’re also vulnerable to the bullying tactics of politicians and activists — all of it turbocharged by social media and a pitiless internet-fueled news cycle that never sleeps.

No wonder business is staying on the sidelines. There’s no winning this season’s political game.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.