The Republicans are awash in governors and former governors (and senators) eyeing the White House. One governor who seems to be bucking that trend is Michigan’s Rick Snyder. But he offers a perspective on what ails the national political culture that the others could benefit from hearing.
Snyder, a former business executive, has been described as an unorthodox politician who plays the game differently than many of his contemporaries. He governs conservatively but says he tries not to make ideology his principal calling card.
“I’m a proud Republican,” he said in an interview on a trip to Washington last week. “I’ve never hidden that fact. I tell, if people ask. But I’ve never gone out to tell anyone that I’m a Republican in my materials or anything else — or a conservative. You’re sort of creating a chasm with other people.”
His Twitter handle is “onetoughnerd,” taken from the ads he ran during his victorious 2010 primary campaign. He’s invariably cheerful — except about the state of national politics.
Like other citizens who live outside Washington, Snyder looks at the practice of politics in the nation’s capital with disdain and disappointment. He said the standards for acceptable behavior in politics are far lower than would be acceptable in other realms, from family relationships to the business world.
“We’re a great country, but can you maintain status as a great country if you spend the majority of your time fighting and blaming one another?” he said. “That’s not a sustainable long-term answer. So the real question is: What’s going to trigger a change enough so people say we need to bring that bar back up.”
One answer is a crisis, though neither the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, nor the financial collapse and economic recession that began in 2008 brought about lasting changes in political behavior. Another is more modest political upheaval, such as the midterm elections last year that gave Republicans full control of Congress.
Snyder thought that those election results might provide a fresh opportunity for changes in behavior at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Based on what has happened so far this year, he sees little about which to be optimistic.
Snyder’s tenure in Michigan has not been without partisan divisions and discord. He drew strong opposition from Democrats during his first term over tax policies that favored business. He provoked the ire of organized labor when he signed legislation to make a state renowned for its unions a right-to-work state.
But in contrast with some other Republican governors, he expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Last year he signed a bipartisan bill to raise the minimum wage to $9.25 an hour over four years, with inflation-adjusted increases after that. He helped push the city of Detroit into bankruptcy, a controversial action at the time, but now seen as a foundation for an urban comeback.
He acknowledged that his relationship with organized labor “has had its ups and downs” but said it is better today than it was when he signed the right-to-work bill. The Michigan AFL-CIO and the Michigan Education Association (along with the Detroit Chamber of Commerce) have endorsed a May 5 ballot initiative that he is promoting. The measure would raise more than $1 billion for infrastructure improvements by increasing the state sales tax from 6 cents to 7 cents and provide additional revenue for education.
Snyder is conservative by instinct but results-oriented. As governor, he does not shy away from using the levers of government to solve problems. In conversation, he talks like a believer in activist government, but he argues that the current model of governance, which he dates to the Depression and New Deal, “is old and getting tired” and therefore in need of an overhaul.
“Government started getting involved in people’s lives, and it was needed,” he said. But now, after 80 years, “all we are is a massive accumulation of prescriptive programs largely led by the federal government. That’s not a model that works well anymore. . . . We’re not treating people as people, the way they deserve.”
Trying to get Snyder to criticize individual political leaders in Washington is fruitless. He doesn’t like to assign blame or responsibility for the state of affairs in the capital, and he resisted doing so when he was in the city to accept an award for bipartisanship, along with Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), from the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.
“If you spend all the time going back to critique either the president or the Congress, you’re not going to solve the problem. Because you’re perpetuating the problem,” he said. “Why waste time on the blame question? Let’s just talk prospectively. Here’s the problems, here’s the issues, here’s the solutions. And let’s do them.”
He said he is looking for that approach to governing as he assesses the candidates competing for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. His message is that voters should look not just at the ideology of the candidates but at whether “they’re caught up in ideology, versus solving the problem. That’s a big distinction.”
So far he’s not convinced any of them grasp that distinction. “I think there are some good people running,” he said. “Some of them are people I know reasonably well. Jeb’s [Bush] a good person. [Wisconsin Gov.] Scott Walker is a neighboring governor.”
Asked whether either met the standard he had enunciated, he said: “I don’t think they potentially go far enough in terms of getting out of the political discussion and getting to the problem-solving discussion. I don’t want to be critical of them, because I appreciate them being proactive.”
He offered a similar assessment of former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, the leading prospect for the Democratic nomination. “If you look at her history, I think it would tend to fall more in the traditional political category,” he said.
Snyder said he expects to see others entering the GOP competition, though he offered no names. Asked what role he hopes to play in the selection of a Republican nominee in 2016, he said that once the ballot initiative election takes place in May, he intends to start traveling the country to talk about “the Michigan story.”
He will highlight his approach to governing, the jobs created in his state and the decline in unemployment there, from a peak of 14.9 percent in June 2009 and 10.9 percent when he took office to 5.9 percent today. The rate is still higher than in neighboring Ohio, whose Republican governor, John Kasich, has been touring states with early nominating contests promoting a story of his own.
Snyder’s principal goal, he said, will be to draw more attention to Michigan and to lure more investment to boost the state economy. But he agreed that another result would be to put him more into the middle of a national conversation about the country’s future.
He declined to speculate further. “I believe it’s one step at a time,” he said. “There are things we need to do in terms of our nation. I think there’s a better approach to governance. And I think it’s clear that if you look at the long-term history, it’s time for that.”
For previous columns by Dan Balz,
go to postpolitics.com.