There was a different, pleasing feel about last week’s Mackinac Policy Conference.
True, the crowd on the wonderfully long, pale green and white porch of the Grand Hotel, punctuated by blazing red geraniums, was as aggressive as ever around the bars at cocktail time.
But the mood was markedly different than in recent years. “This is the first conference in a decade that didn’t consist of wall-to-wall whining,” one grandee told me as he twirled his gin and tonic.
Even a prominent Democrat remarked: “There’s a lot of momentum this time. You can quibble about some of the details (of Gov. Rick Snyder’s various proposals), but overall, it’s a welcome change from previous years.”
Perhaps the biggest contrast was between Snyder (who was ubiquitous, turning up at all hours and most events) and his predecessor, Jennifer Granholm, governor for the eight sessions past. Both have now addressed big crowds in the Grand’s theater for nearly an hour without using notes. There, any similarity ends.
Granholm, whose sheer speaking and dramatic capability are unmatched in modern Michigan politics, captivated her audiences by the sheer force of her personality and presentation.
But in governing against a backdrop of a “single state depression” that she didn’t cause — and could do relatively little about — she had no choice but to emphasize the rhetorical over the factual.
Snyder, riding on a wave of breathtaking legislative accomplishment, was cool, confident, in control.
John Bebow, the executive director of the Center for Michigan, sat beside me for Snyder’s speech. At the end, he remarked, “His unscripted honesty and directness are just stunning.”
The new governor’s comments centered on our state’s history and culture. We have experienced two great periods of remarkable prosperity over the centuries, he said. The first centered around the exploitation of Michigan’s remarkable natural resources, whether the beaver (whose pelts led to our first multi-millionaire, John Jacob Astor, who used Mackinac Island as the headquarters for his fur business in the 1820s) or the copper and iron ore of the Upper Peninsula and the white pine of the north woods.
Our second great boom was driven by the great entrepreneurs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the men who created Dow Chemical, Upjohn, Kellogg, Ford and a score of others. “There was no place in America that matched the scale and scope of Michigan’s economic miracle at that time … We were the Silicon Valley” of that era, Snyder explained.
And, he added, there’s no reason Michigan can’t do that again — if we have the guts, imagination and staying power.
Unfortunately, as the auto industry grew and prospered in the 20th century, “we got too successful,” he said. Successful, fat, and lazy. We forgot costs, lost sight of entrepreneurialism and allowed ourselves to be deluded that our prosperity would last for ever. The periodic downturns of the latter part of the 20th century indicated something wasn’t right; the Great Recession of the 21st century nearly did us in.
The bottom line, Snyder argued, is that now is the opportunity for us to build a new Michigan. “We tend to look at the past, in the rearview mirror. We spend too much time thinking about how we keep that good thing going,” Snyder said. “It’s time to look towards the future.”
The big issue, according to the governor, is our culture, that fragile and hard-to-pin-down set of attitudes and habits that define people’s thinking and, thus, doing.
“The biggest change we need to have in Michigan is not in law or regulations or taxes, but in our culture,” he argued. Snyder pointed to the state’s response to what so far has been a shrinking economy:
“There’s this divisive attitude about win-lose,” he said, describing our belief that for somebody to get ahead, somebody else had to fall behind. “It shows up in politics too much. It shows up in East-West too much. Every Michigander loses (from that) – even the people who are winning, because we’re just sinking more.”
He described what this culture looks like from his perspective as governor. He has too many meetings that start off with a request or demand for money. “That’s not the key for a good conversation,” he said wryly. Next, when presented with a new idea, too often he hears the objection that “we’ve always done it this way.”
Snyder’s right. Culture trumps a whole lot of things, whether tax policy or reapportionment or emergency financial management. Trouble is, culture is tougher to change than to define.
But changing it is absolutely at the core of where our state needs to go.
Correction: In his June 2 column, Phil Power asserted that implementing right to work policy in Michigan would require a constitutional amendment. This is not so; it can be done by statute alone. Mr. Power regrets the error.
Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think-and-do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of The Center. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org