Susan J. Demas: Rick Snyder shows that civility is the last refuge of a scoundrel

July 8, 2019 7:13 am

Gov. Rick Snyder, (R-MI), speaks during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, about the Flint, Michigan water crisis, on Capitol Hill March 17, 2016 in Washington, DC. | Mark Wilson, Getty Images

Hell hath no fury like a rich white man scorned, even in the face of a major American city being poisoned. 

Former Gov. Rick Snyder’s place in history is presiding over the Flint water crisis, something for which even a panel he appointed blamed his administration. Progressives long warned that there were severe risks with the CPA’s approach of putting balance sheets before people, but Very Serious People waved us off because he cut corporate taxes, the greatest social good imaginable.

When he finally apologized in the face of intense national and international scrutiny, the Republican seemed utterly annoyed at those ungrateful for the economic “comeback” he constantly congratulated himself for orchestrating.

Five years after the crisis started, his role isn’t over. This spring, Snyder was added back as a defendant in a class-action suit and the Michigan attorney general’s office recently seized his electronic devices.

Judge allows Flint water class-action lawsuit to proceed, adds Snyder back as defendant

Snyder was barred from running for re-election last year due to term limits, and it’s doubtful that Michigan voters would have returned him to office anyway. He barely won a second term in 2014 and that was before sick Flint children were plastered on TV screens across the country.

He had flirted with a presidential bid for a hot minute, but after Flint, nobody took his political future seriously. Go ahead, scan the national stories breathlessly speculating about 2018 challengers for U.S. Senate. Snyder was never even a consideration. 

And while his lack of competence and compassion would seem to make him an ideal hire for the Trump administration, Snyder criticizing the president’s lack of civility — not his cruel and racist policies — has likely closed that door, as well. 

So Rick has been lying low since leaving office on Jan. 1, aside from getting a hero’s welcome from the West Michigan business community.

Snyder’s cell phone, iPad seized amid Flint water crisis investigation

Snyder could have proved cynics wrong by doing something constructive, like advocating on behalf of migrant children abused by the Trump administration’s policies — he once declared himself to be the most pro-immigration governor in America, after all. 

Instead, he’s just posted the occasional bearded pic on social media (and got significantly less guff from crusty male pundits who were incensed when former Gov. Jennifer Granholm moved back to California to be around her aging parents).

During last year’s frenetic Lame Duck session, Snyder happily signed off on many items on the GOP Legislature’s wish list — gutting a minimum wage increase, making it harder for citizen initiatives to get on the ballot, weakening environmental regulations and more.

But he vetoed a few extreme measures, like a bill that would have stripped power from incoming Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel. It was clear that Snyder was in legacy-building mode and I had a theory about that.

Susan J. Demas: Snyder’s next act hinges on his Lame Duck legacy

During my first sitdown interview with him in 2010, he revealed his three-part life plan, which consisted of first conquering the business world as CEO of Gateway, then taking on the political realm as governor, and finally, winding down his career in academia.

His alma mater of the University of Michigan would seem to be a logical choice, but perhaps having a campus in Flint was enough to torpedo that idea. Instead, Harvard of all places came calling. Talk about failing upward.

The Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government announced last week that Snyder would begin a residency as a research fellow. The press release touted his record on civility (of course), infrastructure investment (lol) and self-driving cars (I mean, OK) — but never mentioned Flint once.

Now Harvard has had a recent history of questionable appointments, with its Institute of Politics tapping former Trump spox Sean Spicer, who was paid by taxpayers to lie to us, and ex-Trump adviser Corey Lewandowski, who manhandled a female reporter during the ‘16 campaign.

But it was still a galling move in light of the water crisis and soon spiraled into another national story, appearing in CNN, the Chronicle of Higher Education, WBUR in Boston and more. Progressives were incensed.

Harvard Kennedy School dean Douglas Elmendorf soon sent a letter that Snyder had withdrawn and focused completely on Flint, rightly noting that “the people of Flint, Michigan — and especially low-income Black residents — have suffered acutely because of their poisonous water supply.”

Progressives needle Harvard, Snyder over fellowship

You could see Snyder’s entitled response coming from a mile away. 

Writing in New York Magazine, Zak Cheney-Rice put Snyder’s self-branding as a civility warrior in a national context, like with those mortally offended that protestors wouldn’t allow former Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen to dine in peace. 

Naturally, Snyder suffered this same atrocity in an Ann Arbor restaurant near his $2 million condo after the Flint water crisis broke. To show he was a man of the people, Snyder then threw his wife a birthday party featuring an elaborate cake depicting Michael Kors, Nordstrom’s and Chanel finery. 

Rick Snyder

Snyder’s arrogance and concern only for those as rich as him was readily apparent when he first ran for office, but he was a “founding champion” of the Center for Michigan, along with other civility devotees, so he was wrongly portrayed as a moderate. Even the liberal Detroit Free Press editorial board twice endorsed him.  

Cheney-Rice sums up the civility dance: “No matter who is damaged or to what extent, the responsible party resorts to demanding that everyone else remain civil in their response. This might be laudable were it aimed at just solutions, but more often than not, it is geared toward pacifying backlash and ensuring those who inflict the damage are let off the hook, while maintaining the pretense that their opponents are in the wrong.”

So with his trademark disdain for those who fail to recognize his brilliance, Snyder sniffed via Twitter that he would turn down Harvard because “our current political environment and its lack of civility makes this too disruptive.”

Those who are capable of emotional and intellectual growth would recognize this as the ultimate teachable moment. But alas, that’s clearly above Rick Snyder’s pay grade.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 22-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ+ people, the state budget, the economy and more. She previously served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 90 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 5,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 80 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two kids along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.