Katrina vanden Heuvel
Katrina vanden Heuvel
Opinion Writer

Why the GOP can’t win Michigan in November

Tonight we will learn what pundits and politicos have been clamoring to find out: whether Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum will win the Michigan primary. And yet, for all the attention paid to the primary, especially given Romney’s Michigan roots, relatively little focus has been given to the more important story: that come November, neither of these candidates has much of a chance of carrying the state. After all, it is in Michigan that a battle over perhaps the defining issue of 2012 — the role of government in America’s recovery and it’s future — is playing out beneath the headlines. And it’s a battle Republicans are losing.

It hasn’t always been this way, of course. Bill Clinton was the first Democrat to win Michigan in twenty years, and even in the years since, the state has been a perpetual part of the presidential battleground. But this year it looks like it won’t even be close. A February NBC/Marist poll has the president beating Romney by 18 points in Michigan and Santorum by 26.

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, vanden Heuvel writes a weekly column for The Post.

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Rick Santorum and the separation of church and state

Rick Santorum and the separation of church and state

The reason for the dramatic change is simple enough. Michiganders have seen what President Obama spoke of in his 2012 State of the Union: that “the nation is great because we get each other’s backs”; that “we worked as a team” to restore the economy; and that the winning team included the government. Michiganders have seen the good that government can do, and they like it.

When President Obama took office, the auto industry was on the verge of collapse. But with credit markets frozen, and with a terrible track record of management decisions, GM and Chrysler had no chance of securing private capital to turn things around. And so the choice was simple: the government could “let Detroit go bankrupt,” in the now notorious words of Mitt Romney, or it could step in and save the day.

Unpopular though the idea of a bailout was, President Obama chose to act, to reject the arguments of nearly all of the Republican party, and to see if America’s most storied industry could thrive if given a second chance. It worked. All three auto makers are profitable today; GM had a higher profit in 2011 than at any time in history. The industry has since added more than 170,000 new jobs, and expects to add nearly 200,000 by 2015. No wonder the people of Michigan are so relieved; the same NBC News/Marist poll found that 63 percent of registered voters support the bailout. Even 42 percent of Republicans count themselves as fans.

It all comes back to that enduring question Americans have wrestled with for generations: What is the proper role of government in our lives? The American people may never reach a point where they like government in the abstract. But we have seen time and again that when people see government working for them, they want it in their lives. We see this with Medicare and Social Security, programs that are incredibly popular in part because of the number of lives they touch. And now we see it in Michigan, with an auto industry back on its feet.

In Michigan, in particular, voters seem to be noticing something else too. The choice before them is no longer a simple one between Democrat and Republican, between big government or small. It is a choice between smart policies and partnerships on the one hand, and irrational anti-government extremism on the other. It is the difference, strangely enough, between Mitt Romney’s view of the world and that of his Republican father.

As political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson describe in a Washington Post op-ed, George Romney “dismissed the ‘rugged individualism’ touted by conservative as ‘nothing but a political banner to cover up greed.’” They note that, as governor, George Romney established a minimum wage, introduced an income tax, granted collective bargaining rights to public employees and created social safety net programs for the poor. These were not the liberal convulsions of a Republican who’d lost his way; these were mainstream conservative ideas at the time.

Yet Mitt Romney has rejected of them. He dismisses government’s role in just about every aspect of the American economy. He supports the repeal of the Dodd-Frank financial reform act, and the weakening of the Environmental Protection Agency. He calls regulations “the invisible boot of the state.” He would slash Medicaid and food stamps, along with Pell Grants and Head Start. His policies are designed to prop up the wealthy on the backs of the rest. Where the father had a desire for consensus and a sense of economic morality, the son has neither.

Media attention has focused less on Romney in recent days than it has on Santorum. The possibility of a major party nominating, for the first time in American history, a candidate who rejects the separation of church and state is, indeed, a colorful, if terrifying story. But the truth is, Santorum and Romney are equally extreme, just focused on different issues.

On the issues that are central to economic life in America — the notion of fundamental fairness, the idea that everyone should have the opportunity of social mobility, the basic premise that government has a role to play, in partnership with the private sector — Romney is as extreme as they come. More extreme than either President Bush. More extreme than Reagan and Ford and Nixon. More extreme, even, than Barry Goldwater, the father of Republican extremism.

And so tonight, a small percentage of Michigan voters will decide whether to anoint the economic extremist or the religious one as their standard bearer going forward. But for the rest of the voters, for that larger population, the decision will be much easier: choose neither.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is the author of the book “The Change I Believe In: Fighting for Progress in the Age of Obama.”

 
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