Politics & Prejudices
Jenny take a ride
After an almost leadership-free stint in office, Granholm departs
Published: December 15, 2010
Flashback to a cold New Year's Day in Lansing two decades ago, where newly elected Gov. John Engler has just been sworn in after winning the upset of the century.
Old George Romney, a trailblazing governor from the 1960s, sweeps up, grasps his hand, and offers two words of advice: "Be bold."
Many people would have given Engler, who won by less than 1 percent of the vote, very different advice: Be careful, move to the center, be moderate, woo Democrats in the Legislature.
John Engler didn't listen.
Instead, he was bold. Though Democrats solidly controlled the House when he arrived, he pushed through an agenda that sent Michigan government barreling far to the right.
True, he was able to do so in part because he knew the Legislature better than the back of his hand; he had spent his entire adult life in it before being elected governor. But he was also forceful, and decisively. Politically, I was strongly opposed to virtually everything he accomplished. Nor did I like his brutal style. But he was a very successful governor.
Jennifer Granholm's positions on most issues are much closer to mine — and, I would guess, to those of most readers of this column. Yet two weeks from now, when she leaves the governor's office for the last time, the verdict of history is likely to be harsh. Not because she was governor during a terrible recession; that certainly wasn't her fault. And not because she was in the least bit corrupt in any way — everything I know indicates she is squeaky clean. But she was a howling disaster as a governor, for three reasons.
Nobody knew what she stood for, really, especially as far as the big picture went. Nobody in the Legislature feared her, and as time went on, fewer and fewer even respected her.
But to me, Jennifer Granholm's biggest failure as a leader was simply this: She was anything but bold. Instead, she was weak, vacillating, indecisive and nearly always ineffectual.
We are paying a heavy price for that. The baffling tragedy of all this: It didn't have to be that way. Here's one story that illustrates that, from the long-vanished era of ... December 2006.
Four years ago, soon after her landslide re-election victory, Dan Mulhern, aka the "First Gentleman," called out of the blue and asked if I would have dinner with him in Detroit. That mildly surprised me. After all, I had sometimes been critical of our governor — and even of Mulhern himself.
My questioning of the propriety of some of her husband's consulting gigs caused Granholm, not yet governor, to call up and literally scream at me, an act which made me suspect (correctly) I was unlikely to make the media Christmas Party list if she was elected.
But now, four years later, her man wanted to dine with me. What was this all about? I asked while munching something bland at the Traffic Jam. "The state is really in a mess," he said.
He meant, primarily, state government, which wasn't taking in enough money to pay for the things it needs to do, such as educating our children and fixing Michigan's crumbling infrastructure.
"You are one of the few people who really understands that," Mulhern said. He added that while he thought I had been unfairly critical of the governor and of his own gentlemanly self, they, or at least he, wanted my advice as to how to get this across to the people.
Simple, I said. There's nobody in politics today better at directly communicating with the voters than Jennifer Granholm.
Here's what she needs to do: Ask for, or buy if necessary, a half-hour of television time to lay it all out for the citizens of Michigan. You know, sort of a modern-day "fireside chat." Tell the citizens where the state really stands, perhaps with the aid of a few charts and graphs. Tell them how this massive "structural deficit" gradually evolved, and that none of the politicians, including you, have been completely honest with them.
Then tell them what has to happen now — and that it will cost them. That Michigan has to be fixed so your children and grandchildren can have a future. Tell them it will cost them more now, how you expect to pay for it and why it will be worth it, to everyone. Then be prepared to launch a campaign to get the public behind you, and to push the Legislature to back you.
That's what I told the First Gentleman, in so many words.
"Well, we thought we'd do something like that in the State of the State speech," he finally said. I stared at him. No one listens to or reads the governor's annual state of the state speech except the reporters who have to cover it — and not even all of them. In the end, Jennifer Granholm didn't even do that.
Timidly, she instead had her budget director offer a proposal to increase the sales tax or extend it to services a few days later. The Legislature contemptuously ignored it.
With the passing of years, the governor became less and less relevant to the budget process. She kept busy running around the globe, bringing promises of a few handfuls of jobs. But she never tried to achieve any of the sweeping, massive changes state government needs. Never took the system on.
Which is sad, baffling — and utterly inexcusable. Here's why: Jennifer Granholm had the political capital to make something happen in January 2007. Remember, she had just been re-elected governor by a landslide. Yes, Republicans controlled the state Senate. But their leader was the pipsqueak Mike Bishop, who represented a small district centered in Rochester Hills.
Jennifer Granholm really could have blown him away. She had a rare opportunity to put it on the line and make things happen.
Why? After her huge landslide, she had political capital and nothing to lose. Thanks to term limits, she couldn't run for governor again — or for much else. Democrats held both seats in the U.S. Senate. Nor could she run for president or vice president.
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