Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Saul Anuzis to GOP Economic Populists: "This is not your average Republican twitter page!"

ElectionDissection strolled down to the offices of Americans for Tax Reform for the latest in the series of Newsmaker Breakfasts hosted by the American Spectator.  The “newsmaker” on hand was Saul Anuzis, the Michigan Republican Party chairman who earned the Paultards’ enduring animus by calling for Ron Paul’s exclusion from Republican presidential primary season debates after his symbiotically beneficial contretemps over 9/11 blowback with fmr. NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani in South Carolina.

Despite the fact that its Congressional delegation has been shrinking in recent rounds of redistricting and expects to at the next census, Michigan’s noteworthy political legacy is even more salient as potential bailouts for the Big Three dominate the headlines.  It’s clear that Anuzis’ decades of experience in the trenches of Wolverine State politics do color his vision for a revivified GOP as he vies for RNC Chair.

Anuzis highlighted his vision for harnessing new media to facilitate disseminating the GOP’s message.  (Best line: “This is not your average Republican twitter page!” Oxymoron of the week: “Republican twitter page!”)  And he repeatedly harkened back to the fabled “Reagan Democrat,” citing appealing to this once-decisive voting bloc as the key to a Republican resurgence.  Suburban Detroit’s Macomb County boomed in the 1950s and 60s with auto workers as White Flight emptied the white working class neighborhoods of Detroit’s Wayne County.  Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg identified Macomb as the spiritual home of this famously crucial electoral demographic.  (It’s interesting to note that Greenberg, post-2008, agrees that this political dinosaur is, in fact, extinct.)   

“Reagan Democrats,” of course were those Northern, often-ethnic and heavily Catholic, white working class voters who were lured away from their ancestral Democratic moorings by GOP appeals to their conservative opinions on moral issues, busing and crime and Cold War hawkishness.  But many of these voters were proud union men (and women) who couldn’t swallow even Ronald Reagan’s free trade agenda.  This was especially acute in Macomb Co., Michigan in the 1980’s as competition from Japanese imports rattled Detroit’s long-term game plan.

While social conservatism can be found in Michigan politicians of both parties – Reps. Dale Kildee, Bart Stupak and John Dingell count themselves as either pro-life, pro-gun or both – so, too, does the state’s formidable strain of economic populism infect voters on both sides of the aisle. 

Alabama’s segregationist governor George Wallace first identified this political animal instinctively, scoring above his national average in Macomb in his 1968 indie bid, and capturing a majority in the 1972 Democratic presidential primary statewide.  Twenty years later, Pat Buchanan barnstormed the state denouncing imports and racked up his best score this side of the Granite State in his challenge to George H.W. Bush’s renomination.  Four years later, he fared even better, denouncing NAFTA at every stop. 

Only an underwhelming performance in Detroit dragged Ross Perot’s percentage statewide back to his national average in 1992.  In over half of Michigan’s counties, his call to heed that “giant sucking sound” supposedly sending manufacturing jobs to Mexico pulled in over a quarter to 30% of the vote.

And in this year’s Republican presidential primary, Mike Huckabee scored well in Dutch-settled southwestern Michigan where his social conservatism no doubt resonated with the Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church-goers.  But, his economic populism seems to have struck a cord here, too.  The area’s Dutch-American U.S. Rep. Peter Hoekstra was the only Michigander Republican to oppose NAFTA back in ’93.  Huckabee’s populist notes also played among Yoopers, too, in the Upper Peninsula’s mining and timber towns. 

But Michigan’s stunted population growth has frozen the smaller, broken rust belt cities like Saginaw, Flint, Muskegon and Bay City, where Wallace, Buchanan and Perot exploited white working class anxiety, as well as both the U.P. and the Dutch southwest where Huckabee found a base far above the Mason-Dixon Line. 

Macomb is growing, but still totals far behind Oakland’s population.  (Besides, Obama captured the county comfortably, flipping the narrow win G.W. eked out in 2004.)  Contrast Macomb to its fellow Detroit suburb, Oakland County.  Once home to Midwestern, Michigan, Gerald Ford-style regular Republicans, as this affluent and educated enclave population expands, it threatens to surpass Detroit’s Wayne County, which still continues to hemmorage residents, as the state’s largest jurisdiction.  Oakland’s Democratic trend is relentless as Obama scored the best Dem numbers since LBJ, beating FDR, even!  McCain’s percentage dipped to near Goldwater and Alf Landon lows.  Once safe GOP Rep. Joe Knollenberg also succumbed to Oakland's Democratic wave in '08, after what shouldn't have been a surprisingly close race in '06, given the county's trends were then becoming evident.  (Note, too, the strong showing by North Dakota Rep. William Lemke’s third party bid here in 1936, whose message melding social conservatism and economic populism was amplified by on air harangues from Father Coughlin, the anti-Semitic radio priest whose Shrine of the Little Flower sits in now-trendy Royal Oak, a leading indicator of Oakland’s partisan progression.  Royal Oak gave Gore a 51-45 win over Bush in 2000.  By 2008, Obama’s margin here had grown to a lopsided 61-37.)

Building on a question from Economist.com blogger Dave Weigel suggesting the GOP's appeals to socially conservative voters and anti-immigrant demagoguing had aliented electorates in similar suburban counties nationwide, ElectionDissection questioned Anuzis about whether his strategy for staving off further losses in Oakland included toning down the economic populism that hasn't been a vote-winner there – especially in light of a Big Three bailout that may play well in his state, but not among the Southern-anchored grassroots of the party he wants lead - his answer focused more on this blog’s analysis of Michigan’s political geography than his thoughts on recasting the Republican message.  But Anuzis did offer some interesting off-the-cuff insight into shifting intra-state demographics – UAW retirees, for instance, migrating up north to retire and the increasingly racially diverse make-up of Oakland Co.’s electorate – which offer fodder for future posts.  


Peter Bratt said...

Great post-and as a former Michigan resident, I think that you are spot on with your analysis of the different political cultures of Michigan.

However, I don't see any evidence in your claim that Oakland County is now the largest in Michigan. I've read this assumption in MIRS's political landscape analysis as well, and the data isn't there to back it up. According to the 2006 Census update, Oakland County has a population of 1,214,255, while Wayne has a population of 1,971,853. If you could let me know where you got your data from, please let me know, and I'll stand corrected.

JVLaB said...

Thanks for the "heads up." I've fact-checked and duly noted that Oakland is not, in fact, now larger than Wayne Co. in pop.

Thanks for the constructive comments!