DETROIT–It’s the sober weekdays after, and Michigan’s Democratic party is wondering about the blind date it married in a fit of passion Saturday night.
John Kerry was elected–”anointed” is a better word–the Democratic nominee in Michigan on Saturday. But in the long campaign ahead, national Democrats may regret that Kerry didn’t face a sterner test in the primary of a swing state that he must win if he has any hope of making it to the White House in November.
Kerry breezed through Michigan with 51 percent of the vote, far outdistancing second-place finisher Howard Dean with just 17 percent. But despite those numbers, the patrician Bostonian with a cold shoulder for the auto industry is an odd fit for this Midwest industrial state. If state Democratic leaders had not been so eager to jump on national party chair Terry McAuliffe’s “electability” bandwagon, a scrappy campaign here might have paid dividends in the long run–forcing Kerry to reach out to voters that he will need to mobilize in November. Instead he leaves behind a state where key constituencies are confused or even hostile–either because they still don’t know Kerry, or because they feel disenfranchised by a process that presumed Kerry as the nominee.
The uneasiness begins with key state political leaders who endorsed Kerry, despite his record as a leader on so-called CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) rules–federal fuel-efficiency mandates that have cost thousands of auto jobs over the last 25 years, and that are staunchly opposed by industry executives and unions alike. As someone who has made job creation her top priority, Michigan’s Democratic governor and Kerry supporter Jennifer Granholm felt compelled to publicly justify her endorsement of a man who might put auto jobs in his cross-hairs: “Senator Kerry has said he wants to make sure jobs do not leave this state,” she explained awkwardly. Granholm added that Kerry has told her, in private conversations, that he is not wedded to mandating that trucks get 36 mpg (up from 20 mpg currently)–the most radically intrusive auto proposal in Washington.
Rep. John Dingell–”the auto industry’s best friend”–also got the fidgets when asked to explain why he was hanging out with an SUV-basher. “It would be my hope that as president he would be much more friendly and solicitous of the well-being of the auto industry than his comments in the Senate would indicate,” Dingell said.
But in their rush to endorse Kerry without making him run the campaign trail (Kerry made only one visit here), state leaders are left with only empty assurances.
“They got nothing,” says Bill Ballenger, publisher of Inside Michigan Politics and one of Michigan’s most respected political analysts. “Kerry stiffed them. The way things developed with this ‘electability’ thing, he hasn’t done anything to make himself palatable to Michigan. He didn’t have to answer any hard questions.”
All this has Republicans drooling. Michigan Republican-party Chair Betsy DeVos scoffs at Granholm’s assurance that Kerry will help end the loss of manufacturing jobs. “I’ve seen John Kerry’s job-killing CAFE plan to help Michigan manufacturers,” she says.
But Democratic leaders and activists insist that Kerry is their man, pointing to Al “Earth in the Balance” Gore as an example of a Democrat who can win Michigan even while he condemns cars. Gore, however, was a known entity–an incumbent who had served as Bill Clinton’s VP during the 1990 boom years. Kerry is an unknown–as Clinton was in 1992. And Kerry’s coronation contrasts sharply with Clinton’s crucial Michigan victory in 1992 after a bruising contest against Jerry Brown and Paul Tsongas. That ordeal forced Clinton to spend time in the Midwest seeding grassroots that rallied to him against the elder George Bush in the fall.
Still, Democrats dispute that Kerry’s cakewalk will have any negative consequences. They say this race is about George Bush (the younger), and the sooner Democrats unify around the ABB (“Anybody But Bush”) candidate, the stronger that nominee will be.
“Kerry is the strongest Democratic candidate to defeat George Bush, and that is a critical issue,” says Carl Levin, a longtime Kerry foe on CAFE standards, but an ally on the campaign trail.
Indeed, Bush inspires Democratic hatred not seen since another Republican president–Ronald Reagan–was pushing tax cuts and aggressive foreign intervention (Nicaragua) in 1984. At Michigan caucuses Saturday, the candidate on people’s lips was not John Kerry, but George Bush. “I’m an ABB,” Democratic voter Alan Helmkamp told the Detroit Free Press. “Regardless of the candidate we support today, we’re united in our effort to defeat George Bush.”
“I’m angry,” fumed Larry Loukojarvi. “I want Bush out,” says Angelica Sanchez. “Since Bush got in, everything’s gone to hell,” adds Delmonto Manganello. And so on. But is anger enough? Michigan’s turnout Saturday–162,000–was well below expectations. That’s just 2.5 percent of registered voters.
And in perhaps a more discomforting sign for the party, Kerry’s coronation has been met with downright hostility from black leaders.
Once billed as a showcase for Michigan voters, a NAACP-sponsored debate in Detroit the Thursday before the caucuses attracted only Al Sharpton, with Dean, Clark, and Edwards already conceding the state. But Kerry’s empty seat on the stage looked like a snub to Michigan voters–particularly blacks–and the backlash came swift and strong.
The 800 audience members booed Kerry’s name when it was called. The event has left a bitter taste in Detroit’s sizeable black voting bloc, a bitterness that could hurt Kerry. As Michigan political consultant Sam Riddle told the Free Press: “The black vote may not be there in the numbers the Democrats need to win Michigan in November.”
Listen closely, in other words, and Michigan’s Democrats are grumbling. “In their heart of hearts,” says Ballenger, “they know they’re not happy about this.”
Kerry says the election will be about jobs. And Michigan has lost more manufacturing jobs than any other state in the Bush years. But Kerry’s victory in Michigan’s caucus was not a populist triumph; it was handed to him on a silver platter. And for a rich, Beacon Hill Bostonian trying to shed his reputation for arrogance, John Kerry may soon wish he had gotten his fingernails dirty in Michigan’s primary trenches.
–Henry Payne is a Detroit-based freelance writer and editorial cartoonist for the Detroit News.