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The odd Republican obsession with Detroit

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Detroit does not vote for Republicans. In 2012, 97.5 percent of the city went for Barack Obama. The county sheriff is a Democrat, as are the three U.S. representatives whose districts surround the city. The current mayor, the previous mayor, the six mayors before that guy: all Democrats, too.

But Republican aspirants keep turning up there — as Donald Trump plans on Monday to give an economic address — to explain what ails America and how they can fix it. The GOP held one of its primary debates in Detroit in March. Jeb Bush went there early last year to give his first major policy speech back when it looked like he could still become president. Rand Paul did the same in 2013, on a trip that coincided with Republican Party fanfare opening a local "African-American Engagement Office."

Detroit is a convenient place for Republicans to argue that Democratic ideas have failed even hard-core Democratic voters. Or, as Ted Cruz put it at the March debate: "Let me start by observing that Detroit is a great city with a magnificent legacy that has been utterly decimated by 60 years of failed left-wing policy."

This notion that liberalism itself destroyed Detroit (and, now, nearby Flint) is common among conservative commentators. And if you ignore the promising signs, the city certainly serves up enough dire images to buttress the claim. Those ghost factories. The boarded-up homes. The once-grand but abandoned train station.

That scenery may appeal to Trump, who has promoted the premise that urban crime and despair in America are surging. At the Republican National Convention two weeks go, he said the country needs a president who can "liberate our citizens from the crime and terrorism and lawlessness that threaten their communities."

But Detroit doesn't offer as simple a story as Trump and other Republicans may portray.

Although it is true that Democrats have been in charge of the city for quite a while, Detroit's decades-long decay is in large part because of historic forces attributable to neither political party, as several fact-checkers pointed out in response to Cruz's remarks. Middle-class whites and good manufacturing jobs began abandoning the city back when there were still Republican mayors in charge, and before the 1967 riots that are often pinned as the beginning of the city's collapse. Detroit's population peaked in 1950.

Detroit has been electing liberals since the 1960s, but well before then it built an economy precariously dependent on manufacturing. Detroit never invested, for instance, in the kind of higher-education institutions that later helped buoy former factory hubs such as Pittsburgh and Cleveland (despite the philanthropy dollars that could have endowed them). And, as historian Thomas Sugrue has argued, institutionalized racism and discriminatory housing in Detroit further fostered its decline after World War II.

The city did suffer much more recently from political corruption that deepened its crisis — by, yes, a Democratic mayor — but that chapter says nothing of the deep historic roots of the city's troubles.

Another problem with pegging liberalism for Detroit's downfall is that a lot of other cities are both deeply blue and economically strong. San Francisco, sitting at the heart of the most dynamic economy in the country right now, is far more politically liberal. New York — famously home to wicked "New York values" — is the epicenter of the country's financial power. Washington, D.C. isn't doing so bad, either.

The six largest metro areas in the U.S. account for about a quarter of the entire country's economy. And the cities at the center of each of them — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Houston and Washington — all have Democratic mayors.

That's not to say that liberal policies made those places successful. But it's hard to argue at the same time that they decimated Detroit. In general, we tend to blame or praise elected officials for economic outcomes they barely control, and Detroit in particular has been a victim of forces much larger than one person or party.

When Rand Paul visited the city three years ago, after the 2012 election postmortem in which Republicans vowed to better court minorities, he proposed "Economic Freedom Zones" for high-poverty neighborhoods like many concentrated in Detroit. In areas with 1.5 times the national unemployment rate, he wanted to offer substantially lower personal and corporate tax rates to spur investment and boost take-home pay for the poor.

His diagnosis of the city's problems was more nuanced than Cruz's, blaming "a corrupt marriage of big government and big labor and big business that has worked against the city of Detroit for decades." Both parties were to blame, he added. But to him, Detroit looked like the model of a place where people didn't have the freedom they needed to solve their own problems, a notably conservative take.

Jeb Bush similarly painted Detroit as a symbol of the lost American dream. "Big-government policies," he said, were a significant part of what drove people from the city, giving another version of history that's not quite right (unless you're counting the end of legal segregation and the construction of highways as big-government policies).

Both Paul and Bush also acknowledged something fundamentally optimistic about the city, its resolve to bounce back and signs that it has begun to do so. The bailout of the auto industry doesn't figure in their telling, as it does for Democrats. Detroit, for all its political power as a cautionary tale about liberal government, can also for conservatives be a story about people persevering despite government.

Trump, who tends more toward doom than uplift, may have more to say about the first narrative than the second. But either way, it is without a doubt that Detroit won't vote for him. In the Michigan Republican primary this year, a grand total of 1,675 souls in a city of 500,000 voters did.

Mayor of Detroit Mike Duggan alluded to Republican candidate Donald Trump's multiple bankruptcies during his speech at the Democratic convention Jul 27. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: SAUL LOEB/The Washington Post)