After a year on the job, Rick Snyder is still a puzzle to political pundits. On the eve of his second State of the State address (SOS), Lansing doesn’t know what he will say. Despite a historic year of legislative accomplishments, the political class finds him opaque. Where is he going? What’ll he do next? Who is he?
He’s Michigan’s Mitch Daniels. How do we know? He’s told us so.
“When I looked around the country for role models, the state that popped up, that I believe is a top ten state, is Indiana,” said Snyder in introducing the Indiana governor at a Mackinac Center event in Lansing this fall.
His nod to Daniels is a familiar talking point in interviews. An admirer of Daniels’ business background, the ex-Compuware CEO has adopted Daniels “dashboard” metrics, long-term budgeting discipline, and government-as-a-service-business models.
And like Daniels, Snyder has achieved quick success, taking advantage of Republican legislative majorities to pass an astonishing sweep of legislation in his first year.
Mackinac Center President Joe Lehman calls Snyder’s freshman year the “best year for reform since Gov. Engler’s first term.”
Snyder’s vague, “reinventing Michigan” 2011 SOS barely hinted at the flurry of legislation that was to come: Business taxes cut, a balanced budget, charter school expansion, corporate welfare axed, government employment benefits brought more in line with the private sector, school spending restrained, teacher tenure toughened, welfare capped at four years, worker’s comp streamlined, the item-pricing law nixed, and more.
Democrats howled. Yet GOP conservatives rarely cheered — still suspicious of a man they tagged as a RINO during the campaign.
Now, as SOS II looms, party conservatives are again restive. As with SOS I, Snyder has given little hint of his legislative priorities. An then there’s that fellow Daniels next door who has become a conservative icon – elevated by a presidential election year in which his star rose and conservatives wept when he failed to enter the GOP fray.
As Daniels kicks off his legislative year with calls for a Right to Work Indiana, Michigan conservatives are once again ashamed of their governor. Why can’t he be more like Mitch?
But upon closer inspection, the R2W issue reveals a Daniels who is more like Snyder than the Right acknowledges. Like Snyder, Daniels did not initially embrace R2W. He shied from it. Indeed, while Daniels’ service in the Reagan administration and penchant for quoting The Gipper – both badges of scout honor that The Nerd lacks – gave him quick entry into the conservative club, his gubernatorial record has also been under constant attack for RINO-ism.
There was Daniels’ call for a 1 percent tax hike on the wealthy, his tax on liquor and beverages to fund a state takeover of sports arena and convention centers, and a state health exchange which raised taxes on cigarettes in order to help uninsured families purchase a private health insurance policy with state subsidies.
These controversial plays torpedoed the Indiana governor’s approval rating into the low 40s early in his term – reminiscent of Snyder’s equally problematic 30-something approval rating that is making Republicans nervous on the edge of an election year.
They have reason to worry, says Michigan political guru Bill Ballenger. “The polls are bad,” he says, remembering that Gov. Daniels’ policies led to Democratic gains and a split legislature in Indiana two years after his election.
In the end, Daniels’ relentless focus on fiscal discipline, education choice and economic growth paid dividends. With time, the reforms paid off despite his lack of ideological purity. Snyder looks to repeat that success.
Contrary to popular wisdom, the Daniels role model — followed to a “T” by Snyder — is not conservativism; it is creating a successful business climate. What defines Daniels and Snyder is their executive’s competiveness. They are CEOs who see their states as businesses in a battle for market share. And they will adapt their business models accordingly.
Listen to Snyder in that Lansing speech introducing Daniels:
“Governor Daniels was kind enough to have a meeting with me,” said Snyder of his 2009 visit. “I was telling people in the campaign that you know the largest source of business for the state of Indiana? It’s the state of Michigan because of the Michigan Business Tax. So here I was going down to Indiana (to tell Daniels that) I want to get rid of the dumbest tax in the United States so that (his state) doesn’t get most of the business from our state. Now, if you’re on the receiving end of that, would you be excited about seeing me? No.”
Fast forward two years. Snyder has made Michigan more competitive with Indiana — and suddenly Daniels has embraced Right to Work. It makes his “business” more competitive than Snyder’s. If Michigan’s governor is on the receiving end of that, will he be excited about seeing Indiana as a Right- to-Work state? No.
Which is why I’m betting Rick Snyder will soon be a R2W advocate himself. It’s how CEOs — er, governors — stay competitive.