Some days, it feels like Gov. Rick Snyder is just going through the motions, running out the clock until December 31, 2018.
Gone are his peppy promises of working in “dog years” on his agenda, complete with PowerPoint-heavy special messages on problems he’d quickly dispatch with “Relentless Positive Action.” His zest for playing the “One Tough Nerd” persona that got him elected has certainly faded.
Snyder isn’t the first governor to get worn down by the job. Running a state home to 10 million people and a $57 billion budget is no easy task.
And many critics, myself included, noted Snyder’s predecessor, Jennifer Granholm, seemed to be looking for the exits in her last two years. As the Great Recession barreled through Michigan, she was constantly tormented by rumors the Obama administration would tap her for a cabinet or Supreme Court slot.
Snyder isn’t looking for his next political gig, however. Oh, there was a time when he was the belle of the pragmatic conservative ball. Detroit News Editorial Page Editor Nolan Finley started breathlessly banging the Snyder-for-president drum in the summer of 2014. A fews months later, Ron Fournier, now of Crain’s Detroit, tweeted: “Watch this Snyder guy in 2016. He gets stuff done.”
But now, in a time when the national media churn out endless speculative candidate stories, Snyder’s name is never mentioned to challenge U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) in ‘18 or for any other high-ranking job. And no reporter even bothers to explain why.
Because everyone has heard of the Flint water crisis. And no one waxes eloquent about Snyder’s decisive leadership and innovative data-driven approach anymore.
Of course, President Trump has never been one to hold failure against anyone (the thrice-bankrupt real estate developer has seen fit to hire several alumni of Goldman Sachs, which helped cause the aforementioned Great Recession). But Snyder shot himself in the leg there, as he refused to endorse Trump. So Snyder can’t really pin his hopes on an administration post, no matter how many people quit.
Flint has irrevocably diminished Snyder’s governorship. But the curious thing is that he seems content to finish the job himself.
Snyder could have helped rehabilitate himself by leading the conservative opposition to Trump’s authoritarian nativism, as I noted after the election. He already made himself a powerful enemy by withholding his endorsement, so why not stick to core principles and send a powerful message as a Rust Belt governor?
Naturally, that was expecting too much of Snyder. But he did manage to surprise even some cynics like me by backing away from two big fights that defined him in the media as a “moderate” governor: immigration and health care.
After declaring himself to be the “most pro-immigration governor in the country” back in 2011, Snyder refused to condemn Trump’s Muslim ban in a mush-mouthed statement. He also said nothing when ICE agents raided a restaurant (after enjoying breakfast there first) in his hometown of Ann Arbor.
And the governor has failed to lead the fight against deporting Chaldeans, Iraqi Christians who fled their war-torn homeland for metro Detroit. That decision is a humanitarian travesty, but it’s also politically perplexing one, as Chaldeans are a fundraising force in the GOP.
Perhaps Snyder’s biggest success was getting the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare through the hostile GOP-led Legislature. Not only has that made it possible for almost 700,000 more Michiganders to have health insurance, but it’s also generated more than $550 million for the state budget in 2016, according to a University of Michigan study.
Medicaid is under attack from Republicans in Washington desperately trying to repeal Obamacare. So where’s Rick Snyder?
He’s been conspicuously absent from the bipartisan group of 10 governors working on health care solutions. They most recently opposed the Graham-Cassidy bill, while Snyder was still hemming and hawing. Studies show the plan would cost Michigan $8 billion, but that won’t really hit until long after he moves out of the governor’s mansion.
So should we conclude that Snyder has just given up on his legacy?
Actually, I believe it’s quite the opposite. Snyder’s lieutenant governor, Brian Calley, would like nothing more than to succeed him. But most politicos doubt he can win. In the GOP primary, he would face Attorney General Bill Schuette, an ace fundraiser and politician who likely started to practice his inauguration speech during kindergarten recess.
Calley is weighed down by Snyder’s dismal poll numbers and has his own problems with the base, as he unendorsed Trump after the “Access Hollywood” tape. The LG is trying desperately to prove his conservative cred with his part-time legislature gambit, but he has a lot of ground to make up.
If Calley can somehow pull it off and become Michigan’s 49th governor in spite of Trump, Flint and a restless electorate, that would be quite the vindication for Rick Snyder.
So no, he’s not going to tangle with Trump. He’s not going to stand up against ICE raids and 700,000 people losing health care. He’s not going to do anything that will hurt Calley.
Snyder has decided that’s the way to salvage his legacy — even if it means sitting back while many of his accomplishments unravel.
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.