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Michigan’s Sunny Pragmatist

Theater is an important element of politics, and the show that Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder orchestrated for his inauguration was encouraging.  

Two-thirds of the incoming state legislature is new, among them many tea-partiers. Yet Snyder resolutely resisted the anti-government, no quarter rhetoric that so many in his party have adopted. Instead, his inaugural address repeated his winning mantra of boosting innovation, building a more entrepreneurial culture, keeping Michigan’s young people in the state, and reforming Michigan’s tax structure and government for better performance.

But even more important than the words were the people he surrounded himself with, designed to underscore his inclusive approach to governing. Democratic Mayor Dave Bing of Detroit was the master of ceremonies, while his Republican counterpart from Grand Rapids, George Heartwell, gave the invocation. Former Democratic Governor Democrat Jennifer Granholm sat next to her predecessor, Republican John Engler—both got special Snyder shout-outs. Democratic legislative leaders--now in the minority--were granted podium space and recognition historically reserved solely for those on the “winning” team.

Governor Snyder also struck many moderate chords not touched recently by fellow Republicans: “We need to put party and geography aside and come together as Michiganders to reinvent our state … We need to stop being divisive and become inclusive.” And, in a rare nod to social equity in anyone’s inaugural, Snyder emphasized several times that “the reinvention of Michigan must not leave anyone behind”.

Snyder’s bi-partisan symbolism and moderate tone contrasted noticeably with fellow statewide elected Republicans who swept to office with him. In their five minutes following the governor, his new colleagues in government consistently hit conservative, hot-button themes. Incoming Attorney General Bill Schuette: “The people want a safer Michigan with less government, less taxes, less spending, more paychecks, and more freedom.” New Secretary of State Ruth Johnson said the first priority was to “to downsize government." She and Schuette made sure to genuflect to the conservative altar of Ronald Reagan (Snyder did not), with Johnson quoting from his inaugural address and Schuette boldly proclaiming it “Morning in Michigan.”

Snyder had campaigned on a pragmatic platform that combined spending and tax cuts with investing in what Snyder called on Saturday: “Michigan’s world class assets … our natural resources, our universities, our manufacturing and industrial base, and more importantly, our people.”  It’s not clear how much the now very conservative Republican State Legislature, the vast majority of whom are brand new to legislating due to Michigan’s draconian term limits, will support any of the “invest” elements of Snyder’s “cut to invest” program.

Another bit of theater, which was beyond the governor’s power to orchestrate: When Snyder took the stage, the weather was unexpectedly bright and warm (warm being a relative term in Michigan in January). But immediately after Governor Snyder finished and as his compatriots began their “less government, more freedom” drill; clouds covered the sun, and a chilling wind began to blow over the Capitol lawn. We’ll see if the merits of Snyder’s agenda are sufficient to ensure its passage--he may need celestial backing as well.