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Howes: Gov. Whitmer is struggling to execute her vision of uniting the parties, getting things done

Jake Neher

Governor Gretchen Whitmer took office a year ago promising to be something her past two predecessors were not: a veteran legislator who could work with the other party to get things done.

Turns out that’s not true. Instead of delivering grand compromises with Republican leaders in the state House and Senate, Whitmer adopted the unilateral tactics so popular in Washington nowadays. And the $3.5 billion debt-financed plan to repair Michigan’s crumbling roads – touted in her second State of the State address this week – is a prime example.

Whitmer blamed “political gridlock,” decried “inaction,” declared GOP suggestions to divert teacher pension money, or sell bridges to raise cash to fill potholes, “not serious.” And she’s exactly right.

Enter her “Plan B” – a one-sided executive response to the chronic Republican inability to reach any meaningful, let alone sweeping, roads compromises with the past two governors.

daniel howes
Credit Daniel Howes / Detroit News
Detroit News

Where’s the wily legislative veteran-turned-governor, the person who could work with lawmakers from the other party to reach long-term solutions for deep problems? Short answer: she’s bailing because Plan A turned out to be the political equivalent of walking into a brick wall.

Whitmer is discovering what her Democratic predecessor, Jennifer Granholm, and the past two U.S. presidents learned the hard way: bi-partisan comity in our tribal age is a cruel joke. It’s far better to talk about than deliver, especially when the other side thinks it’ll pay no political price for using the most popular word in politics today: no.

And given how polarized politics are today in Lansing and Washington, the just-say-no corner has it pretty much right – as the archly partisan impeachment trial of President Donald Trump demonstrates.

Steep political prices are paid for saying yes, for working with the other side, for trying to transcend petty partisan considerations to get things done. Such heresy is greeted with condemnation and threatened primary challenges, fueled by social media.

So Whitmer is doing what any self-preserving chief executive does these days – using her pen to go around the Legislature. Given the alternative, it’s arguably a legitimate move. But it’s not sustainable – particularly if it a) validates Republican warnings about increasing the state’s debt load and b) exposes the governor’s authoritarian bent.

The first casualty: the governor’s credibility. The second is her alleged reputation as a veteran dealmaker. Neither Granholm nor Rick Snyder had legislative chops – and it showed. Whitmer was supposed to change that, but 13 months in she’s fallen short.

Not encouraging, as business leaders privately lament.

They see a governor struggling to deliver her vision, struggling to manage fraught relations with Republicans, struggling to understand the moment facing both her administration and the state.

Touting automotive investments in Detroit is understandable for any governor looking for some economic credit. But the simple facts are that decisions on both Ford Motors’ Corktown campus play and Fiat Chrysler’s new Detroit Jeep plant came during the Snyder tenure.

Whitmer needs to notch some wins of her own, preferably by forging the promised consensus with Republicans who have the guts to say yes.


Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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Daniel Howes is columnist and associate business editor of The Detroit News. A former European correspondent for The News, he has reported from nearly 25 countries on three continents and in the Middle East. Before heading to Europe in 1999, Howes was senior automotive writer and a business projects writer. He is a frequent contributor to NewsTalk 760-WJR in Detroit and a weekly contributor to Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor.
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