Howes: Lansing power game heralds dysfunction, weak leadership in age of COVID-19

As Michigan and its people gut through the worst public health crisis in memory, its political leaders are waging an unseemly fight over power.

Not over when the state’s beating industrial heart employing hundreds of thousands here should restart operations to lower the nauseatingly high unemployment rate and inject cash into the economy. Not over a transparent schedule that business owners could actually see to enable them to plan for reopening and all that means for employees and customers, revenue and profits, employment and unemployment.

No, as protesters once again Thursday aired grievances about methods used to battle a pandemic that favors neither Republican nor Democrat, the GOP majority in the Legislature and the administration of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer remain locked in an escalating battle both deserve to lose — if only to share equally in well-deserved ignominy.

With the economic restart already beginning, they’re making a mistake that will loom over Lansing for years to come. Jockeying for power resonates in tinier corners of the partisan fever swamps, of course, but it’s a poor substitute for what’s needed to manage a once-in-century pandemic. Good politics leavened with frankness, comity and cooperation rewards those who do the job they were elected to do.

Do the opposite, mistakes both sides appear determined to make, and the disputes will harden into bitter dysfunction we don’t need. That would complicate efforts to restart Michigan’s economy and contend with the financial fallout likely to revive the worst vestiges of the “Lost Decade” in the 2000s. And, yes, both sides would share the blame, starting with the governor and the so-called “quadrant.”

Gone is any semblance of teamwork forged in adversity, the “we’re-all-in-this-together” spirit of just a few weeks to go. Whitmer’s aggressively thoughtful leadership won bipartisan support early on, but increasingly her instincts produce dictates often left both unexplained and unjustified because, well, she figures she doesn’t have to.

That’s no coincidence. The governor’s style hardened as her national political ambitions flourished amid talk of becoming presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s pick to be his vice presidential running mate even as President Donald Trump’s prospects to again carry bellwether Michigan are showing signs of dimming — suggesting that the real battle in Lansing has little to do with the average folks wondering how soon the COVID-19 nightmare will pass.

First, they have to endure yet more spectacle from Lansing: the GOP threatening to sue Whitmer over her emergency powers; Whitmer disregarding the threat, essentially implying that her reading of a more sympathetic emergency powers act (1945) trumps a later version (1976) favored by the Republicans.

Really? The nation’s 10th-largest state, a cornerstone of the nation’s industrial heartland and electoral gateway to the presidency, is being forced to endure a collective fit by its warring political class whose goal is what — to use a crisis to agglomerate power for whichever side can prevail in the courts, in public opinion or both?

This not a game. Skeptics convinced the locus of infection would remain in southeast Michigan in general and Detroit in particular are being proven wrong, as the infection rate in that corner of the state ebbs and begins to migrate westward.

Restarting Michigan’s stalled economy is a complex undertaking that requires a coalition between business and labor, health care and political leaders. Instead, as Detroit’s automakers are airing new health protocols to enable the restarting of critical assembly and parts plants, the top levels of the state’s political leadership are waging a high-stakes food fight.

A former minority leader in the state Senate, Whitmer touted her past legislative experience in her run two years ago: She understood the process, knew how the Legislature worked, would accomplish what her two most recent predecessors often couldn’t: namely, compromise to get things done.

The stalemate does not portend well for the near future. Michigan will need to muster the cash to meet soaring unemployment claims, to cut billions from the state budget to offset plunging state revenues, to contend with slipping credit ratings that beget higher borrowing costs, to bolster the confidence of business leaders quietly doing the hard restart work for Whitmer under the Michigan Economic Recovery Council.

Michigan is better prepared than a dozen years ago to weather a deep economic shock. Its automakers and major suppliers boast stronger balance sheets, its largest city is more financially stable and economically viable, and its state finances are more resilient — all of which is insufficient without leaders who act like leaders.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs most Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN. Or listen to his Saturday podcasts at or on Michigan Radio, 91.7 FM.

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