Politics & Policy

After Kilpatrick

GOP will seek to link Obama to Michigan's poor governance.

Michigan Republicans, having been beaten up for several consecutive election cycles, are starved for a big win in 2008. With two new polls of the state’s likely voters showing John McCain one point behind Democrat Barack Obama, they think they can finally make the case to voters and end a long losing streak.

They may be hoping for too much, but their chances at least cannot be discounted.

#ad#“We’ve seen this kind of campaign before in Michigan,” former senator Spencer Abraham (R., Mich.) told National Review Online last week in Minneapolis, referring to Obama’s high-energy but low-content message of “change” and “hope.” He said that Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and sitting Micigan governor Jennifer Granholm (D.) “both ran this sort of campaign — we were told to believe, to vote for change. They both made similar pitches — inexperienced politicians who frame themselves with great stump speeches.”

Kilpatrick agreed last week to step down as mayor of Detroit and accept a 120-day jail sentence on two felony charges relating to false testimony he gave in a police whistleblower trial. Granholm has presided over one of the nation’s worst state economies for six years now. As recently as last October 1, she was still blaming her predecessor, former governor John Engler (R.), for the state’s fiscal and economic problems. Under Granholm, who like Obama is a Harvard-educated lawyer and liberal Democrat, Michigan has long been in a one-state recession. It is the only state to have lost jobs each year for the last eight years. The economic situation in Michigan worsened noticeably after Granholm broke a campaign promise and worked with Democrats in the legislature to raise taxes last year. The state’s unemployment surged this summer by more than 2 points, and is currently the nation’s highest at 9.1 percent.

“If you like what [Gov.] Jennifer Granholm has done for Michigan, you’ll like what Barack Obama is going to do for America,” says Saul Anuzis, the state GOP chairman. “More government programs, higher taxes on business.”

This will be the Republicans’ message in Michigan, not unlike the one adopted by national Democrats at their convention in Denver: Obama is “more of the same.”

Last May, Obama offered now-embarrassing full-throated praise for Kilpatrick at the Detroit Economic Club, providing a convenient audio-visual link between the two men. “He is a leader not just here in Detroit, not just in Michigan, but all across the country,” an exuberant Obama said of Kilpatrick. “We know that he is going to be doing astounding things for many years to come. I am grateful to call him a friend and colleague, and I am looking forward to a lengthy collaboration.”

At the time of Obama’s speech, Mayor Kilpatrick was already being sued for retaliating against whistleblowers — the case would later result in an $8.4 million settlement for the whistleblowers from the fiscally troubled city. Kilpatrick had also been cited by the Detroit Free Press in 2005 for putting $210,000 in entertainment, dining, and travel expenses on his city credit card during his first 33 months in office. The Associated Press wrote at that time that Kilpatrick “has been dogged by complaints about wild parties, lavish entertainment, and use of city vehicles for personal family travel.”

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Obama did finally call on Kilpatrick to resign on September 3, after his removal from office appeared inevitable. Obama’s spokesman offered this reason: “Mayor Kilpatrick’s ongoing troubles and the serious charges against him have been a distraction that the city cannot afford.”

One independent conservative group, Freedom’s Defense Fund, is already exploiting the Obama-Kilpatrick tie with a cable television ad featuring the footage from the speech at the Detroit Economic Club, which is designed to run up Obama’s negatives in two Michigan counties that are critical for Republican electoral hopes — Macomb and Oakland, in the north suburbs of Detroit. These two counties are full of refugee families that fled Detroit as it slid into extreme urban decay. Macomb is also home to many autoworkers, and Republicans will focus on how Senator Obama’s plans to raise fuel efficiency standards could further cripple that industry.

#ad#George W. Bush lost the more affluent Oakland County in 2004 by 3,000 votes. He won Macomb, known as an enclave of blue-collar “Reagan Democrats,” by just 6,000 votes as he lost Michigan by 165,000. McCain would have to win both counties by substantial margins if he is to have any chance of winning Michigan’s 17 electoral votes — no easy task, and probably not enough on its own.

The rest of the geography looks slightly more promising for the GOP cause. In Detroit, there could be some fragmentation in Detroit’s Democratic turnout operation this fall as several candidates vie against one another to finish Kilpatrick’s term as mayor. The special election is expected to take place in February, allowing no time for reconciliation and cooperation.

For Michigan’s conservative west and its outlying rural areas in the North, Republicans are also counting on a boost from Alaska governor Sarah Palin (R.), McCain’s running mate. They believe that Palin will have broad appeal in rural Michigan, and that her outdoorsy image will provide micro-targeting opportunities for key constituencies there — as Anuzis points out, there are 365,000 licensed snowmobiles in Michigan.

Kilpatrick’s election slogan was not “Change we can believe in,” but “Our Future: Right Here, Right Now.” Granholm’s candidacy was described by Detroit Free Press columnist Dawson Bell in 2002 as “a blank slate upon which” groups seeking more funding could “project their fondest hopes and dreams.”

Obama offered a strikingly similar description of himself in his 2006 memoir, The Audacity of Hope: “I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which many people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”

Along with that self-description, Obama acknowledges that he is “bound to disappoint some, if not all of them.” Kilpatrick and Granholm have certainly succeeded in doing this already. The question is whether anyone can convince Michiganders that they are seeing the same thing again.

David Freddoso is a staff reporter for National Review Online and author of the newly released The Case Against Barack Obama.

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