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Can The Tough Nerd Talk Sense To Romney?

In addition to massively outspending Rick Santorum on the airwaves in Michigan, Mitt Romney now has the support of the state’s governor, Rick Snyder, who to no one’s surprise announced his endorsement this morning. Snyder’s affinity for Romney is plain: both are charisma-challenged technocrats (Snyder ran as “one tough nerd”) who made a bundle in venture capital (and private equity, in Romney’s case) before bestowing their data-driven know-how on the electorate. In my magazine profile of Snyder last spring, I described how, by being less provocative than his fellow rookie Republican governors in Ohio and Wisconsin, he was managing to implement a staunchly conservative agenda under the radar—notably a massive tax reform package that eliminated state corporate taxes on 95,000 businesses and slashed revenues by $1.7 billion, which Snyder made up by cutting spending on education and aid to towns and cities, and by reducing the earned-income tax credit for the working poor.

But what strikes me most about this week’s pairing of Snyder and Romney is how moderate the former comes across in contrast with the latter, given how far right Romney has tacked since his days as a fellow blue-state governor. Most notable, of course, are their stances on the auto bailout. As a candidate in 2010, Snyder grudgingly approved of the bailout, and he more recently has taken to unequivocally praising it. In recent months he has said that refusing government assistance “would have had a devastating impact on the economy,” and that “the bailout actually was something that really worked, if you look at the results of the companies.” Recognizing what a challenge the bailout’s success poses for the many Republicans who did not support it, Snyder has taken to urging people to stop fixating on it as an issue. “I would say that my view of the number one overblown issue is the auto bailout,” Snyder said in November. “Everybody wants to spend a lot of time and they view it as the defining issue, and I don’t believe that’s the case. It’s history. And again, there are a lot of different ways to do it, but people shouldn’t be making judgments too much on history, and Michiganders have learned that looking back has not done a lot of good for our state.” But of course Romney is doing just the opposite—perhaps realizing he can’t walk away from the issue as easily as Snyder proposes, he is doubling down on his opposition to the Obama Administration’s decision, by framing it—innacurately—as a rank giveaway to the unions.

There’s also a lower-profile transportation industry issue, though, where the two men are at odds: passenger rail. Snyder distinguished himself from his fellow Midwestern GOP rookie governors, who turned down big chunks of federal rail funding for their states, by gladly accepting $200 million in federal cash to improve Amtrak service between Detroit and Chicago, a step that could do wonders for knitting the Great Lakes region’s most struggling big city with its most vibrant one. Romney, meanwhile, is going around the country declaring that he will elimininate federal funding for Amtrak altogether. It is about as bald a pander as Romney’s pandering gets—as governor, Romney was an unapologetic advocate of all things smart-growth related, including passenger rail. Who knows, maybe while they’re on the hustings together in Michigan, the tough nerd can have a tough talk with Romney about laying off the anti-rail cheap shots and reminding him what comes of places like Detroit that for far too long build themselves around nothing but the automobile.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis