Susan J. Demas: Trump told us to drink bleach. Whitmer has tried to keep us safe. What side are you on?

April 30, 2020 7:07 am

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives an update on COVID-19 | Gov. Whitmer office photo

Last week, President Donald Trump told people that drinking disinfectants could fight off COVID-19. There wasn’t a peep from Michigan Republican leaders that this was a dangerous idea, even though, quite predictably, there’s been a national spike in people using bleach and other products improperly.

This week, Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) went on a rant himself that the duly elected Democratic governor is a “dictator” for enacting measures like many state CEOs — both Republicans and Democrats — that have saved lives during the crisis.

Don’t take my word for it. Take that of the GOP judge who Wednesday refused to strike down Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-home order: “Although the Court is painfully aware of the difficulties of living under the restrictions of these executive orders, those difficulties are temporary, while to those who contract the virus and cannot recover (and to their family members and friends), it is all too permanent.”

Whitmer got it right this week when she said at one of her regular news conferences: “This is not a political problem that we have. This is a public health crisis.”

If you don’t get that, you don’t get anything.

And that goes for people in my profession who would rather breathlessly over-cover heated political rhetoric because it’s fun and easy than the pandemic’s death toll, which is all too real.

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COVID-19 is still ravaging our country, with almost 61,000 deathsmore than the Vietnam War U.S. death count or about the equivalent to 20 9/11s. In Michigan, our daily case numbers are thankfully dropping thanks to social distancing measures, but we still surpassed 40,000 cases Wednesday and have the third-most deaths in the nation with 3,670.

This was the main story yesterday. It’s the main story today. And it will be the main story a long time. Because there is no vaccine. There is no cure. It’s why I have nightmares almost daily.

And here’s where politics do come in. We have inadequate testing and tracing thanks to Trump’s complete mismanagement of the pandemic, where states have been left, too often, to fend for themselves — unless he’s distributing ventilators as political favors to vulnerable GOP senators.

Michigan Republicans sadly have treated the pandemic as a political campaign all along. The main problem for them hasn’t been that over 3,600 people are dead — they almost never talk about it. Even more amazingly, this callousness has worked to some degree. They are rarely asked why they aren’t mourning the dead, which is pretty odd considering the fact that they bill themselves as the “pro-life” party.

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And the racial dynamic can’t be ignored, as African Americans are 40% of COVID-19 deaths and Detroit has been the hardest hit area. But somehow the “All Lives Matter” crowd doesn’t seem terribly moved by those lives being lost.

The main problem for the GOP this election year is that Whitmer has a 65% approval rating on handling COVID-19 in the most recent polling — 22 points above Trump — and her numbers have been consistently high throughout the crisis. No Confederate-flag-dotted protests organized by well-connected conservative interests, irascible tweets from corporate lobbyists, complaints about her political ambitions, fake American flag memes or hit pieces in right-wing media has punctured them.

Really, if you’re a horserace journalist, it’s hard not to conclude that this hasn’t been a giant GOP political fail.

The Trump campaign is watching Michigan extremely closely and, well, it doesn’t look good. Unless voters start to blame Whitmer for the pandemic and the economy, Trump’s odds of winning the state — which fueled his improbable 2016 victory — remain long.

So instead of working with the governor on the biggest problem any leader has even faced in Michigan, Republicans have played obstructionists — not that they really have much of a say. Michigan’s governor has extraordinary emergency powers in law and the Constitution, something Republicans never had a problem with when they ran the state for eight straight years before Whitmer’s election.

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In fact, after voters dumped the hated emergency manager law in 2012, the GOP Legislature quickly resurrected it and GOP Gov. Rick Snyder happily signed it. We all know what happened next with that law — it helped fuel the previous major health catastrophe in Michigan, the Flint water crisis.

But while legislative Republicans only did the bare minimum to look into how a major city was poisoned (investigations don’t really work when you don’t want to find anything on your own party), they’re chomping at the bit to probe the Whitmer administration on COVID-19, subpoena power and all. (Weirdly, Republicans haven’t offered up their communications with political operatives and business lobbyists in crafting their “open Michigan now” plans, but I’m sure it’s just, ahem, an oversight.)

Now Republicans probably won’t extend the state of emergency for a pandemic that’s killed more than 3,600 people, even though they had zero problem doing that for a sinkhole a couple years back. If you’re looking for a crazy, extreme position, that’s it. This isn’t a routine budget negotiation. It’s not normal — or moral — to demand political concessions from the governor kneecapping her power during a pandemic, especially when the courts and voters keep siding with her.

People are dying. Republicans care more about fighting with the governor than helping them. It’s pretty simple.

So we’ve seen a series of temper tantrums and all-caps Facebook posts from Shirkey about the governor (not dissimilar to those of very serious conservative columnists) and it’s hard not to conclude that she lives rent-free in these dudes’ heads. Long before COVID-19 hit Michigan, Shirkey seemed unable to come to grips that Whitmer has more power than him and was snorting she was “batshit crazy.”

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I’m not breaking any ground here to note that intelligent, accomplished progressive female politicians face huge blowback from conservatives who often have some pretty backward and warped views of women. That’s certainly an undercurrent here. Criticism of women and people of color tends to be sharper and more personal. (If that’s something you haven’t noticed, you may want to check your own biases.)

If you talked with any GOP strategists or politicians during the 2018 campaign, they would tell you in the first five minutes that Michigan was never going to elect a female Democratic governor again after Jennifer Granholm. Their faith in this idea was unshakeable. Republicans were, of course, very wrong and have never really gotten over the fact that Michigan voters didn’t agree. Once you understand this, so much of Republicans’ inexplicable rage and laughable strategy makes sense.

Powerful women also tend to receive more negative coverage than men, which really works to Republicans’ advantage in this case. The two men seeking to bring down Whitmer over COVID-19 both happen to be not-so-secretly interested in winning her job in 2022: Shirkey and U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider, a Trump appointee that the most nakedly partisan attorney general in U.S. history, Bill Barr, has charged with rooting out issues in Whitmer’s executive orders. But there are precious few stories about their lofty ambitions while there’s daily speculation over Whitmer’s VP chances.

You don’t have to agree with all of Whitmer’s orders. No one has had a perfect response to the crisis. But the contrast between her steady, science-driven leadership prioritizing public health vs. Trump’s bumbling and mismanagement and Michigan GOP leaders playing politics couldn’t be starker.

And voters agree.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 23-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on C-SPAN, 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. 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 100 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.