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Gov. Snyder's 'reinvention' journey nears its end

• Jan 29, 2018 at 3:30 PM

Rick Snyder may be the least combative governor in America. He is so different from the pugilistic president who leads his party that it is easy to forget their important similarities.

Both were businessmen who emerged from primary fields crowded with familiar political names to become their party’s nominee.

Both were elected by voters hungry for an outsider with business savvy, a CEO who would impose corporate discipline on a government bureaucracy grown bloated and unaccountable to its customers.

And both began their terms determined to free corporations and entrepreneurs from the burdensome regulations and onerous taxes they insisted were the biggest impediments to employment growth and prosperity for all.

Unlike Trump, who would bludgeon his way to the White House by disparaging the character and motives of everyone who disagreed with him, Snyder assumed office with few sworn enemies and considerable goodwill. Even political opponents found his social awkwardness and rhetorical shortcomings endearing. He often seemed a fish out of water in a back-slapping capital city where everyone knew everyone except him, but no one dismissed him as stupid.

Yet Snyder’s ambitions for Michigan — and for his own political future — were anything but modest. Like Trump, he believed that government was beyond reform; only reinvention could fix it.

He cloaked his revolutionary zeal in the language of conciliation, not confrontation. He spoke of rationalizing government, not "draining the swamp."

What he lacked in political savvy he made up for in discipline and persistence. Almost before anyone knew what had happened, he had delivered a massive business tax cut and begun to "streamline" the environmental, safety and labor regulations he believed were discouraging businesses from investing in Michigan.

Emboldened by his success in Lansing, he turned his attentions to Detroit, a fiscal time bomb generations of his predecessors in both parties had been reluctant to approach, much less defuse. He initiated the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, brought it to a swift conclusion, and handed the reins to a mayor who swore allegiance to a different political party but spoke in the same pragmatic language of dashboards, performance standards and best practices.

As 2016 approached, it seemed as though the governorship that had seemed so unobtainable just a few years before might be merely a way station on the path to a cabinet post, a vice presidential nomination, or even —?

The governor who delivered his final State of the State message last week did not look or sound much different from the one who addressed the state Legislature seven years ago. At 59, Snyder still glories in his nerdiness and speaks like a CPA. He still exudes optimism, and he keeps his disappointments and his dislikes far from public view.

But what looked like idealism in 2011 now seems more like willful self-delusion.

Yes, Michigan’s unemployment rate is near historic lows. But so is Indiana’s, and Hawaii’s, and those of many other states where business taxes have not been slashed and college tuition is more affordable and those whose graduates are not so eager to move elsewhere.

Per-capita income and household income have grown, but Michigan still languishes in the bottom 40 percent of states, the Top 10 status it once enjoyed a relic of the last century.

The state’s population is growing, but not nearly as fast those of the southern and western states poised to cannibalize more of our state’s congressional clout after the next U.S. Census. And Snyder’s own party seems determined to choke off the legal immigration that has allowed Michigan to offset the flight of its own children.

Michigan is solvent (if you overlook the unfunded liabilities of its municipalities and school districts), but no one knows better than our CPA governor how unsustainable that solvency is in the face of lawmakers determined to cut taxes and postpone infrastructure upgrades that were overdue before Snyder took office.

Michigan’s ability to educate its children, which our highly degreed governor knows to be the best predictor of future prosperity, continues to erode, thanks to legislators more interested in cutting taxes than boosting reading and math scores. In a valedictory Hail Mary near the end of Tuesday’s SOTS address, Snyder pledged to seek the biggest increase in K-12 funding in 15 years. But who imagines Republican lawmakers will consent to such a long-term investment in an election year?

The conventional wisdom is that Snyder was undone by Flint, his political prospects aborted by the same contaminated water that poisoned that city’s children.

But the truth is more complex; it lies mainly in the governor’s underestimation of the malignant forces lurking in his own party, and his confidence that could he appease them.

Because Snyder was never Trump. The only thing Trumpian about him was the voters’ conviction that his outsider’s status gave him magical powers.

Maybe I’m naïve, too, but I don’t believe Snyder ever aspired to drown government in a bathtub, or starve public education to extinction. I think he genuinely thought cutting business taxes would create a rising tide that lifted everyone’s boat, that public institutions could be strengthened, and that taxpayer dollars could be targeted to buttress the collective welfare.

And I think he knew that employers like Amazon would never invest in a state that was reluctant to invest in itself, or even to keep its potholes filled.

Snyder still knows that, but he has failed to convince his colleagues in the Republican Legislature. He has discovered that even his own his party is less a family than a group of warring clans, and that in politics, as in war, appeasement often begets only more appeasement.

Once he started cutting taxes, Republican lawmakers were unwilling to stop. Once he put higher education on a diet, the ideologues around him wanted to take it off life support.

And when he objected, it was in the language of civility and reconciliation that was rapidly losing currency in the Age of Trump.

Snyder’s vision for Michigan was never a radical or malevolent one, but his conviction that he could defend it without standing up to the bullies in his own party was naïve.

Michigan needs a pragmatic governor now as much as it did eight years ago. But this time we should elect a pragmatist for whom fighting is not a dirty word, but a skill set.

You may contact Brian Dickerson at the Detroit Free Press at bdickerson@freepress.com.

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