Politics & Prejudices
The choice for governor
Breaking down the race for governor: Bernero vs. Snyder
Published: October 13, 2010
No doubt about it. The Democratic candidate was an accident of history, somebody who got the job by chance; got the nomination because none of the more experienced candidates wanted it.
They all knew he couldn't win.
So did all the smart guys in the media and the chattering classes: pollsters, pundits, talking heads. The Democrats had been in power a long time, and times weren't great.
Time for a change. The Democrats were divided. Their nominee was an emotional, passionate guy who could make a speech, charge up some of the fools, but didn't have a clue.
The Republican candidate was better connected, more accomplished, had far more education. He had it won. The only way things could change was if the Republican made a mistake. So his speeches were full of air. He was against waste, fraud and abuse.
He wanted to give citizens more value for their tax dollars. He pledged to clean up the mess in government. He smiled and waved, said we had been great and would be great again.
But the Democrat said all sorts of risky, sometimes contradictory things. He wanted universal health care and he wanted better conditions for the workers and he wanted to do more for them.
Even if it cost the rich people more than they are paying now.
You may think that passage above describes this year's race for governor of Michigan, between Rick Snyder, the venture capitalist Republican, and Virg Bernero, the mayor of Lansing. And, as a matter of fact, it does.
But I wasn't thinking of them when I wrote it. I was thinking of a long-ago presidential election between Democrat Harry Truman and Republican Thomas Dewey, candidates who share an uncanny resemblance to Snyder and Bernero stylistically and politically.
Truman was sneered at as a little man out of his depths, an emotional hot dog. Thomas Dewey was the reasonable, sober, adult candidate. Every political writer in the country said he would win. The Chicago Tribune set their headline in type and went to press early: DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN. The Wall Street Journal devoted the lead story to explaining how Dewey would govern. The Detroit Free Press wrote an editorial calling on Truman to resign immediately so that Dewey could become president early.
But guess what happened? Harry Truman won the election, easily.
Journalists, professors, pollsters and politicians intently studied how they could have been so wrong. There were three main answers:
People tended to like the scrappy little Democratic underdog. Nobody much liked Dewey, who was a strutting, pompous gasbag. But since all the cool people thought Truman was a loser, people didn't tell pollsters the truth. And reporters ignored signals that the conventional wisdom just might be wrong; Truman had larger and more enthusiastic crowds, for example.
But everybody refused to see all that.
That was way back in 1948. Today everybody "knows" that Rick Snyder is going to win the election. Reporters have been sneering at Bernero forever. But the mayor of Lansing won the nomination (which they also said he wouldn't do) and it ain't over till it is over. And we ought to remember that.
Before you jump to conclusions, I am not predicting that Bernero will win. As a matter of fact, I think he'll lose, probably decisively, though he did easily win the one debate Snyder reluctantly agreed to, last Sunday night.
Winning it wasn't all that easy; both Steve Henderson of the Free Press and especially Nolan Finley of The Detroit News were far harder on Bernero than Snyder. Finley asked Snyder, for example, if he could be "tough" in Lansing, instead of asking how he expected to govern when he had never spent a day in any office.
Snyder, who mainly appeared to be a robot, mostly said things like "we need an attitude of action." And "I have a 10-point plan on my website." Nolan Finley did ask him one very good question: "How do you create a job?"
Snyder's answer was something like "government can't do it," which isn't strictly true, and "I've created many jobs," which may or may not be true, but didn't answer the question.
Bernero countered this from the start by saying, "State government isn't working for regular people," though "the wealthy get taken care of." In perhaps the most profound statement either of them made, he said, "We can't afford to be ideologically biased. If [a program] is working, we keep it. If not, we throw it out."
And before you jump to any further conclusions — I am not a dyed-in-the wool Bernero supporter. He annoyed me throughout the debate, as he has throughout his campaign, by his endless repetition of the exaggerated claims that Snyder has "outsourced jobs to China."
Nor am I impressed by his constant banging the drum on the abortion theme. There is no evidence that Snyder has the slightest desire to change abortion policy at all. Many people don't even think he is really "pro-life," and believe he says he is to avoid the active hostility of all the Right to Life of Michigan nut jobs.
Snyder's best moment came when he said, in essence, that the next governor needs to forget about social issues and concentrate on jobs and economic improvement in Michigan.
But, on balance, I came away from the debate thinking that it is clear Virg Bernero, son of an Italian immigrant, genuinely cares about people and wants to help them. I also think that after his years in the Legislature and as mayor, he may have some idea how to govern. That's crucially important; Jennifer Granholm never had a clue.
Rick Snyder didn't give any sense that he had known any "regular people," not for a long time. Nor did he show evidence of the slightest clue he knew what governing in any kind of democracy is all about. Had I been a panelist, I would have been strongly tempted to ask if he would consider firing our lawmakers if they didn't get the job done on his schedule.
> Email Jack Lessenberry