Finally, Michigan has provided the primary season with its first repeat winners: Mitt Romney (you remember Wyoming, don’t you?) and Hillary Clinton. Clinton took the Democratic primary by default. A political scab, Hillary broke the boycott of the Democratic primary, making herself the only active candidate (other than Dennis Kucinich, who is desperate to finally break into double digits–in Roman numerals) on the ballot, which, naturally, is how she likes it.
But does anyone care? Not the Michigan voters, apparently, who stayed home in droves. (The Democrats haven’t been serious about the biggest trade union state in the country since 1988 when Jesse Jackson won the primary. The party bosses wanted no more of that. In 2004, Lyndon LaRouche was the only Democrat on the ballot.)
For his desperately-needed win, Romney mined the fading allure of his father, former Governor George Romney, who retains a faint appeal with the aging populace of the state. But the comparison between father and son didn’t favor Mitt. George possessed a certain Midwestern grit. In his older years, his weathered face could have passed for a labor titan like John L. Lewis–not to mention a striking resemblance to Leonid Brezhnev.
With his comic book superhero hair and perfect teeth, Mitt Romney seems like a ready-made candidate for a political version of American Idol. But his political persona surely must have been off-putting to the Michigan electorate. Romney the Younger advertises himself as a political CEO, a kind of efficiency expert to trim down Washington. Michigan has seen its share of those characters. Every time a new CEO arrived in Detroit, Flint or Grand Rapids, jobs were slashed, tens of thousands put on the streets in the name of a more efficient operation. The mindless pursuit of the bottom line has inflicted a heavy human toll on the people of Michigan. A vote for Romney reflected a kind of self-abuse in the name of nostalgia.
Of course, Michigan has done that before as well. The state was a bastion of the Reagan Democrats, working-class men who bolted the Democratic Party and fled the dictates of their union bosses. Reagan lured them into his camp with promises of muscular militarism, race-baiting and hymns to the fetus. The Gipper repaid them with layoffs, busted strikes and off-shoring of factories.
If the vitality of Michigan’s primary seems diminished, it only reflects the shrinking status of the state itself: factories shuttered, farms on the ropes, homes up for foreclosure, urban centers mired in chronic immiseration. The state is locked in a deep recession with no end in sight. Michigan’s unemployment rate is the highest in the nation, while home heating fuel costs in this frozen state are 20 percent higher than last year. The Great Lakes are dwindling, drained by water-mining and global warming. The Wolverine football team was humiliated at home in front of 100,000 Michigan fans by a small college from the Appalachians. It’s been a bad year in a bad decade.
As for John McCain, he began his primary day in Michigan with a campaign stop at a funeral parlor. It was a presage of things to come. McCain, briefly reinflated out of New Hampshire, replaced Obama for a week as the press corps’ dark horse candidate. He won Michigan in 2000, but fell decisively to Romney this time round. With good reason, too. The senator’s message is grim: 100 years of war, unfettered free trade, belt-tightening and austerity for the poor and working people and tax breaks for the super-rich. And he is an unpleasant messenger, self-righteous, peevish and pedantic. He crackles with hubris when he wins and oozes self-pity when he loses. The former pilot has also proven to have a quick finger for the ejector seat button when he encounters the faintest signs of incoming flak. The rough-and-tumble South Carolina primary could once again prove his Waterloo or Khe Sanh, as the case may be.
The only Republican capable of speaking to Michigan’s battered working class was Mike Huckabee. His campaign has featured a soft-core economic populism that widened his appeal in Iowa beyond the claques of evangelicals. Huckabee and Paul are alone among the Republican candidates in attacking the free-trade pacts, such as NAFTA and GATT, that have ravaged the factory towns of the Midwest. Perhaps unwisely, Huckabee largely bypassed Michigan to concentrate on South Carolina. The man from Arkansas wants to see McCain, Romney and Giuliani (assuming the mayor ever materializes for a primary) locked in fierce battle across the northern primary states, until they rend each other senseless like the deranged combatants in Joseph Conrad’s story “The Duel.”
I find many of Huckabee’s sentiments (such as his belief in parole and clemency) refreshingly humane, but his foreign policy remains strictly Old Testament. Even as the nuclear threat turned to mist, Huckabee amped up his attacks on Iran, vowing to deliver the nation to the “Gates of Hell.” His recent language throbs with a bellicosity not heard since Saddam Hussein’s pre-war broadcasts or John Bolton’s screeds at the UN. (Bolton is rumored to be working as a secret advisor to the Huckabee campaign.) In Pastor Huckabee, Ahmadinejad has met his rhetorical doppleganger.
After taking a pounding from the national press after The New Republic excavated anonymous racist and homophobic writings printed across the past decade in his newsletter, Ron Paul secured his usual 7 percent of the vote from antiwar crossovers, libertarians and constitutionalists, getting as many votes as Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani combined. But Paul’s frosty homilies to the virtues of free-market economics probably cost him many votes from the embattled workers in Michigan who have been repeatedly bitch-slapped by the Invisible Hand.
In the end, this pathetic primary speaks most loudly about the tragic decline of Michigan and the industrial Midwest, laid low by the bipartisan free-trade policies of the Reagan, Bush/Bush and Clinton era. Michigan has been hit by an economic Katrina, playing out in slow-motion over the past decade and not a politician in the country seems to give a damn about it. Perhaps because their fingerprints are on the wreckage. There’s a real conspiracy for you with savage consequences.
Even a century-long flow of defense contracts won’t resurrect Flint now.
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, will be published this spring. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.