If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought Barack Obama was still president based on Attorney General Bill Schuette’s speech this week announcing his 2018 gubernatorial campaign.
And if I really wasn’t paying attention, I may have assumed that Jennifer Granholm was still the governor of Michigan, even though she left the Romney Building in 2010.
Schuette mentioned both Democrats no less than eight times apiece in his roughly 20-minute oratory delivered in his hometown of Midland, a picturesque mid-Michigan hamlet he lovingly wrote about in his 2015 book, Big Lessons from a Small Town.
As I noted back in March, Obama was the perfect foil for Schuette. The Republican AG cast himself as a “rule of law” conservative, frequently joining lawsuits against the administration’s “overreaching” agenda, including overtime rules, the contraception mandate and Obamacare.
And so when Schuette came under fire for his right-wing positions, like taking Michigan’s fight against same-sex marriage to the U.S. Supreme Court (and losing), he claimed he was just doing his duty to defend the Constitution.
It was a two-fold strategy. Schuette was able to make the case that he was a rock-solid man of principle, even when he took positions outside the political mainstream. And going after a Democratic president’s priorities thrilled the GOP base, although Schuette never made his attacks personal, even as the birther movement raged.
That’s just not who he is. Schuette carries himself as an old-school, George H.W. Bush Republican who prefers glad-handing in parades and the rubber-chicken circuit over dissolving into long-winded rants savaging his political enemies.
After being first elected to Congress in the Ronald Reagan era, Schuette has adapted to the changing tenor and priorities of the GOP during his long career as a state senator, Michigan Agriculture director, judge and finally AG. He’s ingratiated himself with the business-driven establishment, religious right and Tea Party, now pivoting to the Trumpists.
And yet, President Donald Trump — the first Republican to win Michigan since 1988 — didn’t even warrant a mention in Schuette’s speech (even Reagan popped up once). Now it’s true that Trump’s bombastic, tweet-driven style clashes with the AG’s deliberate, genial image. And the president’s sinking poll numbers in Michigan are making Republicans sweat.
But Trump remains popular with the GOP base and Schuette does have a partisan primary to win. Given the fact that he’s not naïve — indeed, Schuette is, hands down, the most gifted politician in the state — there’s clearly a strategy at work here.
It would seem that Schuette likes his chances enough in the primary enough not to give Trump a bear hug right now. Since his main competition is expected to be Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who yanked his Trump endorsement after the “Access Hollywood” tape, Schuette may be making a smart bet that he’ll carry the president’s supporters next year, even if mainly by default.
And Schuette has weaved some Trump populism into his messaging, declaring, “For Michigan to reach higher, we need a governor who won’t accept the fate assigned to us by liberal elites who look down on manufacturing and the plumbers, electricians and builders — and head potato boys — the skilled trades that built our country and are needed to rebuild our infrastructure.”
But Schuette mainly chose to prove his conservative mettle by jabbing Obama and Granholm (which is much more comfortable territory for him). Raising the specter of the state’s first female governor helps him draw parallels to his most likely general election opponent, former Sen. Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing), with Schuette not-so-subtly warning that “Granholm’s lieutenants want to take back control of our state in 2018.”
In his speech, Schuette marveled that “it’s amazing we’re still standing” after eight years of Obama and Granholm. His press release had the headline, “We Need to Cop an Attitude. Because We're Michigan, and it's Time to Win Again,” followed by the subhead: “My one goal: to make Michigan a growth state, a paycheck state, a jobs state.”
That’s a bit curious, since we’ve had a GOP governor for almost seven years, who presumably could have done something about growth, paychecks and jobs. If you check in with Rick Snyder — who did get one brief mention in Schuette’s remarks — he’ll tell a very different story about Michigan’s economy.
Of course, Snyder is of little use to Schuette right now. He’s one of the most unpopular governors in the country and can be expected to back his LG in the primary. Snyder and Schuette also have chafed on a variety of issues, like Detroit pensions, but the AG’s decision to charge key administration figures in his Flint water crisis probe has brought tensions to a boil.
Indeed, after listening to Schuette in Midland, you just might forget that Republicans have controlled all three branches of Michigan government since 2011 and that the party now enjoys the same status in Washington.
And you just might believe that a Republican candidate for governor would be the change agent Michigan desperately needs right now.
We’ll see if Schuette’s gamble works.
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.