Most politicians need an enemy to rally the troops against — and make them look good in the process.
President Trump is overdosing on this concept right now, picking fights with the “crooked media,” China, refugees and now even fellow Republicans reticent about voting for Trumpcare, just because it will kick 24 million people off their health insurance.
But even less combative pols benefit from having a good foil.
For his first six years in office, Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette had that in President Obama. Michigan’s top cop blithely went to war with the Democratic president over his new overtime rules, Great Lakes protections, clean power plan, transgender rights for students, contraception mandate and, of course, Obamacare. And although he didn’t take on Obama directly over the 2015 U.S. Supreme court case on same-sex marriage, the two men landed on opposite sides of that lightning-rod issue, as well.
Schuette had his statesman routine down pat. Anytime he was asked about sparring with Obama or defending controversial right-wing positions, he gave some variation of the answer he told Inside Michigan Politics in May 2014:
“Defending the Constitution is not optional as attorney general — it’s mandatory. It’s not a discretionary task. It’s part of the job.”
It was a brilliant political argument and Schuette sold it especially well.
The AG’s frequent battles with Obama also allowed him to raise his profile both nationally and in Michigan, which is pretty helpful when you’re planning to run for governor in 2018.
Schuette could have continued leading the loyal opposition if Hillary Clinton had succeeded Obama this year, as everyone expected. Right now, his team would be strategizing on precisely what tone to take with the impeachment hearings convened by U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). (For what it’s worth, somber and deliberative would have won out).
But while Trump’s surprise victory has been a political windfall for Republicans as a whole, both in Washington and Michigan, there are always unintended consequences.
There could be a backlash in 2018 for the GOP, which now controls every branch of government in DC. In Michigan, it’s been that way for over six years, which could make voters especially antsy here. That could be bad news for any Republican running for governor.
But Schuette, in particular, has to find his rhythm in the absence of his familiar foe, Obama, who was the perfect target for anything that ailed Michigan. The AG could have pivoted well with a conventional GOP president like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, who would be busy chopping taxes for the wealthy instead of sending erratic tweets about North Korea.
Schuette would have locked arms with the new commander-in-chief and declared that Michigan finally had a partner in the White House.
But Trump, as always, makes things complicated. Schuette has been forced to defend the new president on his initial ban on refugees, as well as immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, tweeting: “.@POTUS Trump’s Executive Order is not a ban on Muslims, and he is placing the security of Americans first.”
Trump’s first proposal was widely criticized as violating the constitution, which forced him to retool the ban weeks later. But Schuette — who had trumpeted joining several lawsuits that challenged the constitutionality of Obama’s policies, including Obamacare and overtime pay — was left to meekly root for the home team.
Then Trump proposed cutting Great Lakes funding by 97 percent, which would, of course, be devastating for Michigan, the only state that lies completely within the Great Lakes basin. Schuette, who has long railed about the threat of Asian carp, once again couldn’t bring himself to slam Trump. In a radio interview, Schuette appeared to blame Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Obama (the AG said he misspoke when he said “Obamacare”) for threats to our waterways.
Schuette will certainly have to draw up more tap dance routines, as Trump’s controversial actions keep coming. And that’s revealed an unexpected weakness in his impending 2018 campaign. It’s never as much fun to be playing defense in politics.
But it’s more than that. The AG was able to go after Obama with such zest and aplomb. He was never nasty and looked like a man of “rule of law” principle, yet he managed to skillfully twist the knife in.
Schuette is someone who even many Republicans acknowledge is further right than the Michigan electorate. So this was the best political play he had.
It remains to be seen if he can fully master the Trump shuffle before the next election.
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.