Susan J. Demas: We’re in a Trump recession. Michigan Republicans think they can blame it on Whitmer.

August 1, 2020 8:04 am

President Donald Trump (left) and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (right) | Andrew Roth and Gov. Whitmer office photos

In Washington, conservative fiscal scolds are finally emerging from an almost four-year hibernation in the deficit-busting, economic-tanking Trump era, as polls show the president losing to Democrat Joe Biden in the fall.

It’s a time-honored tradition in D.C., like watching the cherry blossoms bloom in spring.

Republicans sink the economy and deplete revenues, thanks to massive tax cuts for the rich, leaving it to Democrats to clean up as right-wingers hypocritically roar about fiscal responsibility (which many in the media play along with).

The GOP-led U.S. Senate went home for the weekend without agreeing to a coronavirus relief package, which is desperately needed, as COVID-19 deaths have soared past 150,000, the nation’s gross domestic product plummeted by a jaw-dropping 33% last quarter and state budgets are running in the red (yes, even in many red states).

There are 32 million people unemployed during the pandemic recession, including more than 2 million in Michigan. A boost to benefits expired on Friday, and Republicans felt zero obligation to make sure that didn’t happen. The Democratic-controlled U.S. House, on the other hand, passed an extension back in May that the Senate never got around to taking up.

“They never have understood the gravity of it,” U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday.

Meanwhile, local and state governments across the country are paralyzed as they face staggering budget deficits.

“There is not a single new dollar in the [Senate GOP] package dedicated to the needed economic relief of Michigan and the other 49 states,” Michigan Budget Director Chris Kolb said this week. “Frankly, it’s pretty unbelievable.”

COVID-19 initially didn’t hit red states as hard, but this summer has been brutal. So Republican claims that budget shortfalls are just a blue-state problem (meaning that Washington doesn’t need to deal with it) are just false.

Michigan’s revenue is estimated to take a $3 billion hit in the upcoming 2021 fiscal year — a whopping 12% cut. But we’re actually faring better than many states, including Texas (15%), Oklahoma (16%) and Wyoming (21%).

You wouldn’t know that listening to Michigan Republicans, however. Nah, they’re just lazily blaming Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

“Michigan shut down more sectors of business than most states. There were bound to be severe budgetary consequences,” state Rep. Julie Calley (R-Portland) lectured this week on Twitter.

Before getting to the fiscal hypocrisy, it can’t be overlooked that studies have shown that Whitmer’s strict stay-home order likely saved tens of thousands of lives during the pandemic. In fact, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top White House adviser on coronavirus, told Congress Friday that the reason why COVID-19 is so much worse in the United States than Europe is state shutdown orders didn’t go far enough and were rescinded too soon.

We didn’t make that mistake in Michigan. You would think that the supposedly “pro-life” party would celebrate common-sense measures to save people’s lives.

But alas, it’s an election year. And Republicans have made the call that trying to tear down Whitmer is the only way that Trump can win Michigan and likely save the (extremely gerrymandered) state House from going blue.

So far, they’re failing miserably, as Trump trails Biden by double digits and Whitmer’s handling of the pandemic consistently has topped 60%. She’s one of only five governors whose approval ratings have increased since late April (when the gun-toting, right-wing protests against her began). And the Washington Post notes that all the governors in that boat are swing-state Democrats who went big on COVID-19 restrictions.

So it turns out that the morally correct policy position on COVID-19 is also good politics.

And if Michigan Republicans want to blame Whitmer for Michigan’s economy, they’re assuming that citizens are incapable of noticing that the national economy has faltered (and Trump is president). This isn’t a one-state recession that started in 2000 (under GOP Gov. John Engler, as Republicans have conveniently memory-holed) brought on by a contracting domestic auto industry.

Pandemics have a way of sweeping through the entire country; we were just hit earlier than many states. Nobody in their right mind would want us to trade places right now with states like Florida and Texas, the latter home to an overrun rural hospital forced to set up COVID-19 “death panels” because they can’t treat everyone.

But business lobbyists and Republicans have long made the deadly calculation that you can separate public health from economic health. In fact, the economy in Michigan, America and the the world will never get back on track until we are able to contain the virus and stop people from dying. There’s no cheat code. And there’s no moral justification for gambling with people’s lives in hopes that it keeps your stock portfolio safe.

But what do you expect when the last Republican administration in Michigan gave us the Flint water crisis? They’re always willing to put balance sheets above people’s health.

As we near another budget battle before the Sept. 30 deadline for the next fiscal year, a group of House Republicans has come up with a particularly boneheaded resolution, demanding that the federal government not help us.

The sponsors, which includes Trump stalwarts like Rep. Matt Maddock (R-Midland) and, oddly, vulnerable freshman Rep. Ryan Berman (R-Commerce Twp.), claim Michigan should just have $3 billion lying around in our rainy day fund for such emergencies.

Now, we all know that if the state government had that much money stashed away, right-wing and business groups would never stop screaming about the “theft” of taxpayer dollars and demand for tax cuts (for the rich) to rectify this gross injustice. (In case you haven’t noticed, the GOP fiscal game is always “heads, I win; tails, you lose.”)

Michigan had about $1 billion in its emergency fund before the pandemic and has spent some of it down to fix the hole in this year’s budget. That’s not a bad cushion.

But here’s what Republicans are hoping you don’t remember. Before he left office in 2019, GOP Gov. Rick Snyder signed a $1.3 billion pork-slathered Republican spending bill that sapped $500 million from state coffers. It was a lovely parting gift to his Democratic successor (Engler did the same thing — see the pattern?)

Yes, it was truly ironic that our CPA governor, who ran a brilliant marketing campaign that he was “One Tough Nerd” who engineered “Michigan’s comeback” with strict fiscal responsibility, would spend like a drunken sailor on the way out the door.

The bill was just a textbook example of government waste, jammed with more than $100 million for lawmakers’ pet projects, including $18 million for a parking ramp for the state Senate, $10 million for a ski jump in the Upper Peninsula, $2 million for the Detroit Economic Development Association to prepare for the city’s first-ever Professional Golf Association, and even a $10 million grant benefiting former Michigan Republican Party Chair Bobby Schostak.

So, as it turns out, Republicans just might not be honest brokers when it comes to economic matters.

And voters have noticed that they keep fighting Whitmer’s emergency measures to keep us safe during a pandemic that’s killed more than 6,000 of our friends and neighbors.

You’d think Republicans would stop gambling with people’s lives and stop their suffering — at the very least to save their party in an election year. But so far, they seem willing to keep playing a terrible hand and trying to bluff their way to November.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 21-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, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she 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 80 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 4,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 70 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.