Our future, with Dick & Jen

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Normally I am not an enormous fan of what we call "debates" between candidates for high office. For one thing, they aren't debates, but sort of joint press conferences where the best one-liner usually wins.

Twenty-two years ago, Walter Mondale (if you've never heard of him, that's OK) was debating Ronald Reagan. Reagan, who supposedly didn't have Alzheimer's yet, was muddled, confused and stunk up the first debate, throwing the public into confusion. Americans loved Ronnie.

Nobody really wanted to vote for Mondale, an old-time politician with all the charisma of a barium meal. But was the old boy up to the job? When the second debate started, he was, predictably, asked about "the age issue."

Thoroughly prepped, the actor knocked it out of the park. "I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience," he said. Even Mondale laughed, though he knew he was tofu. He would have lost every state in the union, if it hadn't been for a pity vote in his native Minnesota.

Later, it turned out that the old fraud really was largely out to lunch much of the time, and that while Reagan slept his minions were selling arms to Iran, illegally giving money to bandits in Nicaragua and who knows what else.

But RR got away with it, went on to make friends with the collapsing Soviet Union and popped out of the White House, reputation intact. Today, Ronnie is the patron saint of the Republican Party, safely dirt-napping at last and fondly remembered by everyone, especially those who never understood what his policies really meant for the average working American.

Flash forward to the new century. Michigan is, by common consent, in terrible shape, thanks mainly to the domestic auto industry. What nobody likes to talk much about is that it will soon get worse, as the previously announced massive auto layoffs kick in over the next two years.

Last week Gov. Jennifer Granholm went toe-to-toe with Republican trillionaire Dick DeVos in the first of three televised debates. (There was another debate scheduled for last night, which, thanks to the Tigers' playoff game, was likely seen only by two paraplegics who dropped the remotes in Benton Harbor and Ubly.)

I expected very little out of the first debate, but watched it anyway, since I have no friends. What I imagined is that they would be like two skinny sumo wrestlers, cautiously pushing each other in a narrow ring.

In fact, it started even worse than that. The only issue that really matters in this state is the economy, and what we can do to avoid looking like a cross between Haiti and the poorer parts of West Virginia in a few years.

But instead, moderator Tim Skubick, who can come across as sort of an attack ferret, chose to begin by asking if they lied in their commercials. That led to several minutes in which each seemed to be auditioning for a remake of Mean Girls. ("You lie, I don't! You said I didn't meet with Honda! I have pictures of me meeting with Honda!" etc., etc.) Many viewers must have longed for the maturity of Lindsay Lohan. Eventually, however, the candidoids moved on to other topics, and gradually something became pretty clear, which was that Dick DeVos has no business running for governor of Michigan.

Within minutes, he demonstrated conclusively that he a) is a narrow partisan ideologue, b) has no grasp of how state government works, c) is a dangerous religious extremist and d) can't think on his feet.

That doesn't necessarily say a lot for Jennifer Granholm, whom I have criticized here for years for failing to lead. Indeed, it is hard to know what she stands for. With a very few exceptions, she has ducked the hard issues.

Nor has she gotten it done — or, most of the time, even made it clear what she believes needs to be done. What we have needed was a progressive governor who would draw a line in the sand, tell the people what her priorities were and throw down a challenge to the GOP-controlled Legislature.

She has needed to be bold, show guts, fight like hell for more money for schools, for economic development and for the people's business, period.

What we have gotten instead was warmth and charm.

However, it seemed painfully clear what we would get from a DeVos administration would be economic policies that would devastate higher education, and science policies aimed at turning us into medieval Spain.

Add to that a governor who hasn't much grasp of the issues or how most people live (billionaires often don't).

Here's how this all went down:

Years ago, term-limited politicians who were bailing out of Lansing set up a state budget process guaranteed to give us a huge deficit every year. This summer, to add to the irresponsibility, the legislative Republicans repealed something called the Single Business Tax, which produces $1.9 billion a year for state services. They agreed they'd need to find more money somehow ... but said they wouldn't deal with that till after the election. In other words, they want all the credit, but don't want to piss off the people who will have to pay.

Not till after they vote, anyway. To her credit, Jennifer Granholm vetoed this the first time they tried, but couldn't do that this time because supporters had collected enough signatures to put it on the ballot.

What everyone suspects is that the Republicans plan to replace only some of the money lost, giving business a further tax cut. What's wrong with that?

Simply this: The state doesn't have enough money now to adequately fund education, especially higher education. If we don't fund higher ed, kiss high-tech jobs goodbye, and kiss Michigan's future goodbye. Or go to Highland Park and see the future, statewide.

Dick DeVos was asked how he would replace the money. He wouldn't say, or couldn't say. Finally, he said he "would replace at least half of it."

Replacing only half of it would doom our schools — or force the state to close some prisons. DeVos may not know this. Last winter, I asked him on the air what he'd do about the $1.9 billion. "I think it raises less than a billion dollars," he said. He didn't even know how things work. He does know this: Thanks to his narrow religious beliefs, he is against funding embryonic stem cell research. He also wants to have the superstitious garbage known as "intelligent design" taught in our science classrooms, which would cause any high-tech, new-economy business that wanted educated graduates to boogie right away from Michigan.

Granholm delivered the coup de grâce by revealing that DeVos had been an investor in a chain of nursing homes where the attendants had been abusing the Alzheimer's patients. Naturally, that wasn't his fault. Oddly, it would have given a smarter man an opportunity to turn the tables on her. What if he had replied: "Aren't you ashamed that you have to resort to this kind of sleaze when the only real question is why your economic policies have failed?"

But this was Dick DeVos. After claiming he had owned less than 1 percent of the shares, he said, "It turned out to be a bad investment as well."

Q: Not ready for prime time?

A: What do you think?

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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