Whitmer was someone sharp politicos were already looking at before covid-19 changed everything. The 48-year-old governor had spent 14 years in the Michigan state legislature, rising to become the Senate Democratic leader before term limits forced her to leave office. She easily won her party’s nomination for governor in 2018 and then swept to a comfortable win in the fall, defeating the Republican, Attorney General Bill Schuette, by nearly 10 points. She solidified her status as a rising star by giving the Democratic response to President Trump’s State of the Union address this year.
The demonstrations, however, substantially dim that glow. They arose almost overnight after Whitmer signed an executive order tightening the state’s already strict lockdown regime. It closed sections of stores dedicated to plant nurseries and garden centers, a strange decision given that spring is prime planting season and would be a welcome diversion for people stuck at home. Landscapers and lawn mowing services were also ordered to shut down, even though that means many Michiganders will be unable to mow their lawns as the spring growing season gets underway. A public that had largely gone along with her first stay-at-home order burst into anger.
Whitmer’s decision was particularly tone-deaf because it covered the entire state, even though most of it remains largely unaffected by the covid-19 outbreak. More than 80 percent of the state’s deaths and confirmed cases were in the Detroit metropolitan area as of Thursday morning, and that share is higher when counties close to Detroit are added to the count. Yet the order applied to the entire state even though residents in most regions face little risk from the disease. No wonder people drove from all over Michigan to tie up Lansing’s traffic on Wednesday.
This isn’t the first time Whitmer has displayed poor judgment. Her campaign slogan was “fix the damn roads,” but her initial proposal to do that was a 45-cent-per-gallon gas tax hike. That idea would have given Michigan the highest gas taxes in the nation and come on top of mandated increases in the gas tax and vehicle registration fees that had been approved just years earlier. Whitmer said her proposal would cost the average driver $276 a year, meaning a two-car household would have paid over $500 a year more regardless of their income. Her idea predictably went nowhere in the legislature and contributed to Whitmer’s job approval rating dropping to a mere 43.3 percent by January 2020.
Biden may want to shy away from putting Whitmer on the ticket, given the high expectations he has expressed for what his vice president will do. Biden has said he would “turn over presidential responsibility” on key issues to his deputy. At Biden’s age — he would be 78 were he to take office next January, making him the oldest president in history — people are likely to look more closely at his running mate than they normally would. Whitmer’s political tin ear would be fodder for Trump’s campaign, a distraction that Biden surely does not want.
Talented politicians often make mistakes when they rise to new heights relatively quickly. In Ronald Reagan’s first year as California governor, he reversed course to sign a then-record tax hike. Bill Clinton’s job approval similarly plummeted to a mere 37 percent within five months of taking the presidential oath of office. Both men obviously recovered from their early stumbles, and Whitmer could, too. But the risk she won’t could be too great for Biden to take. He will want to keep the focus on Trump, not on his running mate’s tax hikes and overreach.
New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, the father of current Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, famously compared the 1984 Democratic nominee, former vice president Walter Mondale, to polenta. That was considered insulting then because polenta is bland-tasting and mushy. But Biden’s best hope of beating Trump is for his ticket to be perceived as polenta-like, an inoffensive but nutritious staple when compared to the spicy and polarizing Trump. Wednesday’s protests might just ensure Whitmer can’t pass the polenta test. She may need to spend a few more years in Lansing honing her craft before she re-enters the national conversation.