Absolute Michigan is very fortunate to have an excerpt from William G. Milliken: Michigan’s Passionate Moderate, a new book by Dave Dempsey from University of Michigan Press. Transcending partisanship is a major theme of the book and was also a distinguishing feature of Governor Milliken’s time in office. We offer this essay in hopes that it will spark some thought and discussion in the part of our readers in bridging the wide gaps we seem to have today in Michigan.
Not long after William G. Milliken’s 1982 retirement, a political scientist said, ‘The moderate views of partisans and independents alike stem largely from the pragmatic posture that seems to characterize Michigan voters. The great majority of Republicans, Democrats and Independents manifest medium or strongly positive feelings toward both liberals and conservatives, and classify themselves as moderate or middle-of-the-road in their issue orientation.’
Richard Headlee’s surprising showings in both the Republican primary and the relatively narrow defeat by James J. Blanchard in the 1980 general election suggested a rightward turn in the electorate not unlike that of the nation’s electorate in the 1980 election that carried Ronald Reagan to the Presidency. Blanchard was re-elected in 1986 against a weak opponent. But Blanchard’s 1990 defeat, although also narrow, catapulted the conservative, tax-cutting John Engler into power and shifted both the tone and the content of statewide policies and politics for years to come. Engler’s dramatic and successful cutoff of state general assistance payments to able-bodied males in 1991 was not something Milliken would have done, out of his concern for urban populations and the poor, and was something Blanchard could not do, for fear of alienating Detroit Mayor Young and African-Americans. Engler popularized business and personal tax cuts, undercut environmental protections and business regulation, and pushed public funding for charter schools, positions that Milliken never espoused.
An equally great difference was that of tone. During the Blanchard and Engler years, Lansing political discourse, like that of the nation, coarsened. Engler in particular ridiculed opponents. Capitol correspondent Tim Skubick said in his memoir that he regretted not being present when Milliken and his wife ‘got in the Lincoln for the last tie on Inauguration Day 1983. Guys who were there tell me there wasn’t a dry eye despite the bitter cold and the even more chilling feeling that a civil era of Michigan politics was walking out the door – never to return in the same way.’
Trying to place Milliken within the history of the Michigan and national Republican Party requires recognition that the moderate and progressive wings of the Party were vibrant from the 1940s through the 1970s. Milliken was just one of a class of moderate to liberal Northeastern and Midwestern GOP governors that included Nelson Rockefeller of New York, whom Milliken supported for President in 1964, Robert Ray of Illinois, William Scranton and Richard Thornburgh of Pennsylvania, and Richard Ogilvie and James Thompson of Illinois. These men combined the traditional Republican friendliness to business with the championing of an activist government as an instrument of economic opportunity, civil rights, and conservation. But when they passed from the political scene, increasingly conservative Republicans replaced them.
In her book It’s My Party Too, former New Jersey Republican Governor and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Christine Todd Whitman said:
When I came of age as a Republican [she was born in 1946], the party was much more accommodating to a range of opinions within its ranks from the far right to the moderate middle. It’s hard to believe today, but there were even those who proudly called themselves liberal Republicans. The various wings of the party certainly had their irritations with each other, but they nevertheless made room for one another. I was taught by my parents – staunch Republicans both – that this expansive, encompassing reach was one of the GOP’s great strengths. My father referred to the party as ‘the big umbrella.’
In 2006, few would characterize the Michigan or national Republican Party as a big umbrella, let alone a big tent. Instead, Party leaders have either intuited or claimed a mandate from an increasingly conservative populace that they believe wants a smaller government in the economic sphere and reduced taxes, but favors an expansive government in the policing of domestic security and the promotion of morality. The emphasis on eliminating abortion is often linked by conservatives to the Party’s moral origins more than 150 years ago in seeking to abolish slavery. That position indeed seems to command an increasing share of public support, but abortion is a more complex issue that involves balancing rights and personal beliefs. And many of the moral realms within which today’s Republicans seek an expansive government role lend themselves even less to black-and-white judgments. Some – such as domestic surveillance of dissidents whom conservatives consider disloyal in the age of terrorism – are deeply at odds with the Party’s professed goal of defending individual freedom.
Perhaps most damaging to the state and nation in the long run is the bitter division that has resulted from the Party’s admittedly successful exploitation of racial, gender, and security fears. A similar division resulted in the nation’s only large-scale civil war and cost more than 500,000 lives in a fundamental test of the Founders’ ideals. It was, of course, the first Republican President, Lincoln, who presided over that war but sought a reunified nation whose wounds would be quickly healed. ‘Moderates have an indispensable role to play: We must bring the Republican Party, and American politics generally, back toward the productive center,’ Whitman said in her book. She exhorted her moderate cohort to articulate ‘a division that is true to the historic principles of our party and our nation, not one that is tied to an extremist agenda.’
William Milliken, for 22 years in state elective office, shunned the extremes and sought to govern from the center. In his final State of the Stage message to the Legislature on January 14, 1982, he quoted Judge Learned Hand: ‘The temper which does not press a partisan advantage to its bitter end, which can understand and respect the other side, which feels a unity between all citizens – which recognizes their common fate and their common aspirations; in a word, which has faith in the sacredness of the individual – this is what we have striven for.’ Of all these qualities, perhaps the one that ran deepest in Milliken was the ability to ‘understand and respect the other side.’ He saw adversaries and opponents, but no enemies. Too many politicians of both major parties, but especially of the Republican, see enemies in abundance.
To this, Milliken never could or would adapt. Even in the 2004 campaign season, one of the most poisonous in American history, he offered a perspective that, coming from another politician, might have sounded naive or disingenuous – and not credible. In an interview for the magazine Michigan History, he said, “I’ve always felt that good government is good politics. It certainly has resulted in progress in this state – not only in my time but in other administrations as well. When people realize a public official is trying to do an honest and open job, they tend to remember that at election time. Good government is a precursor to a successful political career.
And it’s just as valid today. It’s a key to maintaining the public’s trust and respect for public officials. When that is lost – our democracy is weakened. Right now there is widespread feeling that too many politicians are pandering to special interests and are self-serving. The net effect of that is disengagement on the part of citizens. That’s borne out by the fact that voter turnout is appallingly low”