Are Americans weary of partisanship? If so, then why is Michigan governor Rick Snyder having such a hard time?
Snyder, a Republican, became governor in 2010, the first public office he ever sought. A political outsider and successful businessman, he styles himself "one tough nerd," more concerned with the details of effective policymaking than in ideology. Snyder is fond of describing government work as "customer service."
Sounds inoffensive, but Snyder's technocratic agenda faces opposition from both Democrats and Republicans. A recent Wall Street Journal article described Michigan's fall ballot as a multifaceted "challenge to Mr. Snyder's effort to sell voters--and many lawmakers in his own party--on an approach to governing that doesn't fit neatly into partisan labels." Snyder has cut taxes but also pushed for more spending. He has taken on the unions but held back from going as far as did Wisconsin's Scott Walker, Ohio's John Kasich or Indiana's Mitch Daniels.
Politically speaking, what Snyder has to show for his efforts is a 37% approval rating. Scott "firebrand" Walker (New York Times speaking) has a 50% approval rating.
Snyder's best-known accomplishment is probably "Public Act 4," which allows Michigan state government to transfer control over a distressed city from its elected officials to an unelected city manager. Local officials despise this law for being undemocratic, unions despise it because it allows managers to break contracts, and there is also a racial dimension. Most of these distressed Michigan municipalities are overwhelmingly black and resent having white Republicans in Lansing strip them of their power to govern themselves. The so-called "Stand Up For Democracy" ballot issue would suspend Public Act 4.
The left is also challenging Snyder with the "Protect Our Jobs" Initiative, which would enshrine collective bargaining rights, very broadly understood, into the state constitution.
Snyder is squaring off against the right over a proposed constitutional amendment that would institute a 2/3 supermajority requirement for any tax increase, and "The People Should Decide," which would put the brakes on Snyder's plan to build a new bridge to Canada. In contrast to many other Michigan Republicans, Snyder wants the bridge and doesn't want the tax increase restrictions.
Snyder may yet prevail, but the ballot itself indicates that both Democrats and Republicans simply have not bought into Snyder's nonpartisan philosophy of governing. (Though Snyder has described himself as a "proud Republican," he seems more like a nonpartisan when he says things like, "I feel a lot of this is just common sense...If you dropped all the rhetoric, all the fighting, in a lot of ways people could come up with solutions they could all agree on.")
Michigan has lessons for the nation. If intense partisanship inhibits sound policymaking, what is the solution? There are two choices: bipartisanship or nonpartisanship. Bipartisanship accepts party divisions, but puts them aside temporarily and in extreme cases, such as war or impending fiscal collapse. The bipartisans then return to their camps to fight it out over ordinary issues. Non-partisanship is much more idealistic. The non-partisan does not accept the naturalness of parties and believes free government can function without them.
But virtually every modern democracy has relied on parties. One reason for this may be that it can be hard to trust and work with professed nonpartisans. They are unpredictable, and they rarely overcome the suspicion that their nonpartisanship is really just partisanship in disguise.