Detroit, Mich.–If not for Article II, Section 5 of the U.S. Constitution, Jennifer Granholm might be Hillary Clinton’s worst nightmare: a moderate, electable female governor from a midwestern swing state with 2008 presidential aspirations. Since Granholm was born in Canadian British Columbia, however, Hillary’s status as the most viable First Female President is still secure.
But when Democrats behold the poised, striking, blonde politician with a silvery tongue at the Fleet Center podium Wednesday night, they may wish Section 5 never existed (just as Republicans might when they hear Arnold Schwarzenegger in New York).
Forty five-year-old Jennifer Granholm is a political natural–a media-savvy pragmatist who has achieved soaring public-approval numbers even as she presides over a state with one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. The New Republic devoted a cover story to her in 2002, anointing her “the ideal spokesperson for Democratic politics in the 21st century.” As a female politician, Granholm resembles not so much Hillary, but Slick Willie. The headline name in a Michigan power couple (her husband is a successful businessman), she has earned her political stripes by climbing the Democratic ladder one rung at a time and deftly changing her political colors when necessary. This chameleon streak has earned her both praise as a clever politician, and ridicule as an empty suit.
With a law degree from Harvard in her pocket, Granholm cut her political teeth in Detroit as the lawyer and political protégé of Ed McNamara, then boss of Wayne County’s Democratic machine and one of the state’s most powerful politicians. With McNamara’s backing, she was elected state attorney general in 1998, where she served as an eloquent, populist crusader in the shadow of Michigan’s influential Republican governor, John Engler.
Noteworthy among female Democratic candidates for not running on her sex, Granholm markets herself no differently than if she were a man: as a leader capable of sailing the state through difficult waters. When The New Republic asked her to list her political heroes, she named not Hillary Clinton, but Margaret Thatcher. “She took no guff and got it done,” Granholm explained.
With Engler term-limited in 2002, Granholm made her move, decimating a field of more experienced Democrats in the primary, then holding off a late charge from Engler’s lieutenant, Dick Posthumus, to win the governor’s chair. Observed the Detroit News veteran columnist Tom Bray: “Granholm had megawatt looks…(but) also had the smarts to stay on message–albeit a vague message of kinder, gentler government. She ran an impressive campaign.”
As governor, Granholm has continued to draw parallels with Bill Clinton. Second-term Bill Clinton, that is.
Granholm entered office opposite a Republican-dominated legislature, a political circumstance that has surely checked her more liberal impulses. Her tenure has been marked by small p.r initiatives, not big, Hillaryesque plans like socialized health care. Though her campaign for governor hinted at leftist plans to “tweak” (read “raise”) property taxes and regulate insurance rates, she has discarded both in office. Instead, her instinct for pragmatism has come to the fore. Faced with huge budget deficits, Granholm has worked with the legislature to cut state programs, not raise taxes.
Granholm has also enjoyed the good fortune of following Engler as governor. In his twelve years in office, Engler transformed this high-tax, welfare-dependent state into a model of economic and social reform. Like Reagan at the federal level, Engler’s policies made many enemies, but his results spoke volumes.
Granholm, the pragmatist, has had the good sense to challenge none of Engler’s major reforms.
In part, this is because her ambitions are political, not ideological. And it is this lack of ideological vision that is attracting scrutiny. Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Politics and one of Michigan’s most respected political analysts, credits Granholm with “the common sense to muddle through” but chastises her for “having no plan whatsoever.”
This vacuous passage from her inaugural speech in 2003 set the tone for her governorship: “So government will be great and it will do great,” she said, “but it will take much more than government to enhance our quality of life…. Citizenship in a democracy is not a spectator sport, especially in times as tough as we are in. You heard that song, if you had the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance. Dance with us in government.” Huh?
To date, her most significant initiative has been a call for “cool cities” (kicked off by a Bill Clintonesque bus tour), a fuzzy, happy-talk campaign to promote industrial Michigan cities that are trying to bring citizens back to their inner core.
Ultimately, however, any governor is forced to choose between party interests and the public good. On this score, Granholm may have committed her most ignoble act in late 2003: the craven rejection of $200 million proffered by Michigan businessman Robert Thompson to build charter schools for Detroit’s inner-city poor. Her cave-in to Michigan’s powerful teacher-union lobby was a slap in the face of Democrats’ claimed constituency, the thousands of urban black families on waiting lists to send their kids to charters.
True to her nature, Granholm followed her rebuff of Thompson by keeping the door open, inviting him back to try and spend the money elsewhere. This was no doubt pragmatic, but it was not leadership.
Clearly, Granholm is still a work-in-progress. But, eligible for the presidency or not, her moderate, cross-party appeal–not Hillary’s polarizing, feminist activism–is the model for the female Democratic candidate of the future. After all, the greatest compliment Granholm gets these days is praise from the entrepreneurs and job-makers that make Michigan go: “She governs almost like a Republican.”
–Henry Payne is editorial cartoonist for the Detroit News and a freelance writer.