The proverbial “big tent” that Michigan Republican politicians have talked about for the past three decades got a bit smaller in recent months, as evidenced by an even stronger conservative party platform adopted at the summer convention, only to be topped off most glaringly by the Grand Traverse County Republicans in recent weeks who passed a resolution to disavow former Republican Governor William Milliken as member of the party.
Milliken, a native of Traverse City, is Michigan's longest serving governor, holding the office from 1969 through 1982, following stints as lieutenant governor, state senator and time spent on the Michigan Waterways Commission.
The members of the Grand Traverse group took umbrage with Milliken's endorsement of Hillary Clinton for president this year. The resolution adopted by the northern Michigan Republicans also criticized the former governor for vetoing bills when in office that would have stopped state funding of abortion in 1978, 1980, 1981 and 1982. So, according to Grand Traverse Republicans, William Milliken's “status as a Republican (will) be no longer recognized.”
It was not the first time since leaving office that Milliken ignored party labels when endorsing candidates, including Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry in 2004 and Gary Peters when he ran for U.S. Senate. Oh, I almost forgot, Milliken also withdrew his endorsement of presidential candidate John McCain when his campaign took a decidedly negative turn when he ran against President Obama. Milliken's logic at the time: “Increasingly, the party is moving toward rigidity, and I don't like that.”
That's not to say he hasn't backed GOP candidates, including incumbent Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, but he has long been considered a state leader that was and still is most concerned with who is best qualified to govern.
Franky, I would expect nothing less from former Governor William Milliken, considered a moderate (some say moderate-to-liberal) Republican who was more than willing to cross party lines and achieve consensus on critical issues that allowed state government to function at a higher level during his administration. His concern for good government was applied equally to a host of issues, most notably to environmental considerations. We have Milliken to thank for the Environmental Protection Act in Michigan and the Inland Lakes and Stream Act. Add to that list the Open Meetings Act, among other legislative accomplishments that still benefit us today.
Much to the chagrin of metro area suburban community leaders, he also served as a strong proponent of regionalism decades before the current day converts' push of that viewpoint. Milliken was a bridge from the rest of the state to the city of Detroit during the Coleman Young administration, which probably explains why he is the last Republican governor to carry Wayne County in elections. He clearly was a visionary in terms of the importance of Detroit remaining a successful anchor for the southeast Michigan area.
My personal experiences with the former governor are probably among the most memorable moments in my early career, whether a personal session in his Lansing office where one could comfortably talk about issues like the need for better control over expansion of lakes access development in Oakland County and the state, or his visits to our offices at the time where you could have frank talks about far ranging issues or zero in on local concerns such as the push in those years to expand/extend Northwestern Highway.
The nonsensical Grand Traverse Republicans in recent weeks were no doubt emboldened even more by the continuing swing to the right of the national party platform, which was toughened up even further to appease the conservative wing this summer.
That was not always the case with the GOP, which dating back to the 1968 convention adopted a platform that was considered more socially moderate and environmentally conscious. But by the time we got to the 1976 platform, you could see the influence of the far right. In 1976, opposition to abortion had entered the platform and by the 1990's, faith as an issue entered the party platform. Then in 1992, we have the first mention of same-sex relationships and the rejection of same-sex couples from adopting or becoming foster parents. By the time we hit 2004, the GOP platform became more entrenched in far right verbiage, calling for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union of a man and a woman.
The platform this year represents much of the same exclusionary thinking, despite the lip service paid by national, state and Oakland County leaders to the theory of the “big tent” that supposedly would provide for a more inclusive party to avert further national election losses and the slow death of the GOP thanks to a growing litany of litmus test issues.
And the Republican party – nationally, in Michigan and in Oakland County – have much to be concerned about this election year. With a unruly demagogue at the top of the ticket, whose ratings are spiraling downward just 60 days ahead of absentee ballots hitting the mail, there is legitimate concern that the Donald Trump backwash, coupled with the continuing takeover of the party by hard core conservative zealots, has driven supporters away from the GOP when it comes to Republican hopefuls further down the ballot.
The only hope here in Oakland – albeit one that is getter slimmer by the week – is the history in this county of voters splitting the ticket when moving from the top of the ballot to the state and county offices.
Nationally, split-ticket voting is becoming more of a rarity. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, only six percent of all congressional districts in the 2012 election went for one party for president and then switched to the other political party when picking a candidate for U.S. House.
Oakland's track record shows a bit more independence when it comes to moving across the aisle when casting ballots. Whether that pattern will hold in the 2016 election is anyone's guess. But county Republicans had best hope so, or the ongoing march of Democrats who have made good gains in the last couple of presidential election years in Oakland will continue. The GOP will have only itself to blame for the outcome.