Susan J. Demas: William Milliken: The Stubborn Conscience of the GOP

Dome Magazine

Dome Magazine

Northbrook, Ill., is the sort of idyllic North Shore suburb featured in scores of generic movies and sitcoms –– indeed it’s where the late director John Hughes grew up and set many of his films.

My parents moved our family there when I was 11 in 1988 and they remain there today. I’ve watched Northbrook transform from a country-club Republican haven into a key congressional swing district. There are many factors: increasing diversity, especially with Asians moving in; college-educated voters moving away from the GOP; and voters becoming more socially liberal, even as they remain economically conservative.

Now internal Democratic polling shows Hillary Clinton thumping Donald Trump by 31 points in the district.

But here’s the thing. If Republicans were ever to nominate a candidate for any office –– governor, senator or dogcatcher –– like William Milliken, he’d probably still win Northbrook voters in a walk.

And these are the voters you want to win to build a long-term coalition: affluent, educated, increasingly diverse and informed.

I’m sure many suburban Chicagoans have barely heard of Michigan’s longest-serving governor. But his unwaveringly moderate politics and ability to work across the aisle would be appealing, as well as his World War II service (he won a Purple Heart) and experience as a small business owner. They also would respond well to his record of supporting reproductive rights, increasing the minimum wage, saving Lake Erie and shepherding Michigan’s “bottle bill” into law.

Milliken is back in the headlines for supporting Clinton for president, something that was entirely predictable. Trump’s vulgar braggart style is a 180 from Milliken’s quiet thoughtfulness. And the former governor never would have endorsed Trump’s platform of banning Muslims or building a wall with Mexico.

But it’s sparked a backlash –– and not just from the far right.

Not surprisingly, Right Michigan blogger Jason Gillman won his fight to excommunicate Milliken from the Grand Traverse County GOP. Yes, Gillman, who just embarrassingly lost his primary challenge to state Rep. Larry Inman (R-Traverse City) by 20 points, decided that Milliken –– who knew a little something about winning elections after being governor for 14 years –– should be persona non grata in his own party. And Gillman even publicly clashed with his father, Michael Gillman, a Milliken friend and former appointee.

But several Republicans on Team Never Trump have sniffed that Milliken should have left the GOP years ago, given his penchant for endorsing Democrats.

It’s worth noting that Milliken has continued to support Republicans for office at various levels, with decisive endorsements of Gov. Rick Snyder in 2010 and 2014. (Indeed, Snyder garnered crossover votes in ‘10 by campaigning as the second coming of Milliken).

But Milliken has always been crystal clear about why he hasn’t left the Republican Party. He still wants to change it from within and bring it back to what it was before the religious right gained a foothold in the 1980s and the and Ayn Rand aficionados conquered economic policy in recent years.

U.S. Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Southfield), who twice lost to Milliken for governor in the 1970s, told me last week that he wishes more Republicans would listen to him. The congressman said the Clinton endorsement is “a reflection of the human decency and willingness of Bill Milliken to work together.”

Milliken’s Republican Party is the one I grew up with in Northbrook: supporting a strong national defense and realpolitik; fiscal conservatism without shredding the safety net; funding and improving public education; and supporting civil rights and abortion rights.

Many Republicans, even those in office, still subscribe to that vision of conservatism, but they know they’ll be swiftly primaried if they dare speak their conscience.

Meanwhile, many voters who do have moved to the Democratic Party. Clinton’s coalition currently spans everyone from former Bush National Intelligence Director John Negroponte to independent socialist Bernie Sanders –– which is to say, it’s quite the big tent.

If the modern-day GOP moved more in the Milliken direction, however, it wouldn’t have to rely on depressed turnout in off-year elections to win states and majorities in Congress. There would be a broad-based appeal for voters.

But as The New York Times’ David Leonhardt observed after poring over 2016 polling data, what’s popular among Republicans today “is unpopular with most Americans.” Let’s not forget that calls to outlaw abortion completely, privatize Social Security and even scrap the Civil Rights Act were routine in GOP politics long before Trump marched onto the stage.

Republicans prize ideological purity far more than Democrats do. They’d rather roll the dice with far-right candidates than return to Milliken’s politics, even if it means losing. And yes, they’ve had some victories in ‘10 and ‘14 to convince them that it’s a decent strategy.

But their coalition of downwardly mobile white men and seniors isn’t one that’s built to last.

William Milliken is 94. He’s lost his wife and daughter. He probably won’t live to see his party reclaim its center-right status. It’s enough to break your heart. But he’s still out there fighting to make a difference –– even in a party that no longer wishes to claim him.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at Follow her on Twitter here.