What passes for conventional wisdom in American politics is usually more mythology than fact. One of our most enduring political myths is that government needs outsiders — amateurs — to fix a broken system.
Politicians never lose votes suggesting they aren’t politicians. Next to describing motherhood as one’s primary vocation, American politicians can offer no more seductive pitch than claiming to be a “businessman, not a politician.”
So it was no surprise when “businessman, not a politician” Rick Snyder cruised to victory in the 2010 gubernatorial election. Independents, pragmatists, centrists, and the Serious People™ amongst the chattering classes joined with Republicans to rally around this self-described nerd as the man to cure what ails Michigan.
Snyder’s path to victory was cleared by a number of factors — Granholm fatigue, a lackluster opponent in Virg Bernaro, and a national Republican victory — but his most appealing trait appeared to be his amateur status.
We had us an amateur who could finally, gall darnit, bring some common sense to government!
For a minute, Snyder seemed to be pulling off the amateur-fixer shtick. His budgets effortlessly won legislative approval and he (whatever one thinks of the policy) marshaled a Right-To-Work bill to his desk in literally a matter of hours. Rick Snyder was getting things done! Relentless positive action! Michigan turnaround! Etc. Etc.
Of course, it’s no great trick to get Republican lawmakers — especially this lot
in Lansing currently on vacation — to pass budgets that cut taxes or bills that kneecap organized labor. The real challenges come when proposals face opposition, especially when it comes from within one’s own party.
This is where Snyder has failed and failed spectacularly on matters that have, outside Lansing, near-universal support.
When the legislature refused move on the new Detroit-Windsor bridge, Snyder was left no alternative but to go around them. Legislation to implement Common Core education standard went nowhere. The federally funded Medicaid expansion also hit that same brick wall.
And here we see the limitations created by our political fetish for amateurs.
Snyder has been reduced to performing Howdy Doody Relentless Positive Action floor show on Google Hangout tonight (pro tip: great leaders are rarely compared to wooden dolls undergoing perpetual proctologic exams) in the hopes of getting a Medicaid bill to his desk.
Compare that to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. Love her or hate her, she’s a political pro. When Brewer faced the same pushback on Medicaid until she called a special legislative session and promised to veto pretty much everything else until they sent her a Medicaid bill.
Arizona has their Medicaid expansion and can move onto other matters. Michigan has a governor spending his evenings on Google Hangout. Even if Snyder eventually gets a win on this issue, the time wasted is its own cost. When is Lansing getting to that road funding plan again?
Myths vs. Reality
The thing about these political myths is we aren’t supposed to take them too seriously. Fifty years ago, Michigan elected another amateur “businessman, not a politician” governor. The difference between George Romney then and Rick Snyder now is Snyder really is an amateur. Romney was not. He was always a politician who happened to take a sojourn into commerce. Prior to his time at American Motors, Romney had been an inside-the-beltway lobbyist for the aluminum and auto industries.
If it made some voters feel better about themselves to imagine George Romney as a frustrated businessman looking to shake up Lansing, so be it, but deep down everyone knew he had the background to work a legislature.
Snyder had no such background and we’re seeing what real amateurism in politics looks like.
Snyder can line up all the backing he wants from corporate leaders, wonks, and Serious Pundits — about the only people who will pay attention to this Google Hangout business — but that support is useless if he can’t get legislators, so terrified of primary challenges, with the program.
As much as politicians like Rick Snyder say it’s not about politics and as much as voters love it when elected officials whisper that sweet lie into their ears, governing is about politics—that is to say the art and science of influencing public policy.
On the tough issues, Rick Snyder is building a reputation as woefully ill equipped to handle the politics required to secure key reforms.
It’s amateur hour in Michigan and we’re all paying a price.