It’s election season this fall, though the national political mudslinging has been a round-the-clock irritant already for years, and one that has peaked in the past 12 months. Democrats and Republicans, and their constituencies, are perpetually locked in arguments, and the nature of our political discourse has prevented us from solving the biggest challenges facing our government: the economic recession, unemployment, social issues, exit strategies in two foreign wars, crumbling infrastructure, rising health care costs and a changing planet.
The political debate wasn’t always this acrimonious, at least not here in Michigan, according to former Governor Bill Milliken, who spent 14 years presiding over state government in Lansing (the longest tenure in Michigan history) and currently lives on Traverse City’s Old Mission Peninsula. Milliken has long served as a shining example of cooperation across political party lines. The chipper, 88-year-old believes that his Republican Party, in particular, has become an angry, obstructionist body that hardly resembles the cause he once served.
But though Milliken has occasionally endorsed Democrats during presidential elections (he favored John Kerry in 2004, and retracted his support for John McCain midway through the 2008 election), the moderate still calls the Grand Old Party home. In July, Milliken endorsed moderate Republican Rick Snyder for governor. An Ann Arbor venture capitalist and political newcomer, Snyder currently enjoys a huge lead in the polls.
These days Milliken is retired from politics but reads avidly to remain current. He and his wife Helen also serve on the fundraising committee for the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail — the multi-use bike trail planned for the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The Glen Arbor Sun spoke to Governor Milliken over the telephone in early September about Snyder, the state of American political discourse and the Republican party today.
Glen Arbor Sun: My grandparents in Oceana County are lifelong Republicans. Grandpa was County Commissioner and a delegate to the 1972 Republican National Convention that re-elected Richard Nixon. They consider themselves “Milliken Republicans”. I also have good friends in northern Michigan who have voted Republican most of their lives but chose Obama in 2008, yet still consider themselves Milliken Republicans. What, in your mind, is a “Milliken Republican”?
Bill Milliken: That’s a question that requires some thought and probably a lengthy discussion. Let me say that I believe in a progressive moderate Republican party, and I owe my life to that kind of thinking, that kind of approach. I believe government serves an important and necessary purpose, and can be a positive influence in the lives of men and women, not only in Michigan but across the country. Unlike the kind of approach that’s being used by the Tea Party people and others, who feel that we have too much government, I don’t feel that way. I feel that a party like the Republican Party can be a moderate, progressive influential influence in the lives of people. That doesn’t mean that one can’t criticize government or improve it. But the Republican Party which I served as governor for 14 years has been that kind of moderate, progressive, concerned and compassionate institution. I hope that it will in the future continue to be that kind of public institution.
Sun: What major changes have we seen in the political discourse — in particular between the two major political parties — since the height of your political career?
Milliken: I think we have seen a kind of ugliness and meanness in political discourse in recent years, which is not to say that we did not have some of that while I served in the governor’s chair. But it has seemed to increase. Part of the Republican Party today, notably in Washington, feels that its mission — as President Obama has repeatedly and eloquently stated — its mission is to defeat the President and his programs and his policies. To the extent that the party has done that, I think the party is wrong, and it is a dangerous turn.
Sun: Why do you think that’s happened? What precipitated that shift in the Republican Party?
Milliken: I think that essentially it is maybe because the Republican Party has lost power and influence in many directions, particularly in Washington. By a negative approach, and a personal approach against the President and his programs, that may be the key in the road to political success in the days and months and years to come. I think that’s the wrong approach. I think the Republican Party must, as I tried to lead the Republican Party in Michigan, must be a constructive and a responsible party, coming up with programs of its own that are useful in solutions to problems.
To the extent that we have deviated from that, and have adopted an intensely personal approach to the opposition, we are not serving the public interest. That is something we must as a party always try hard to do, to serve the political interest, and not a narrow, personal or partisan interest.
Sun: If you were starting out in politics today, what would you call yourself? Or what would any centrist or moderate in your vein call his or herself? Would they be a Republican, Democrat, Independent? What do you think?
Milliken: Thank God I’m not (laughs). … I think there are still moderate and progressive and thoughtful Republicans in many corners, in many areas in the State of Michigan and beyond. If I were to start over again, I think I’d pursue the same philosophical approach which I attempted to pursue from the very beginning of my involvement with public life. I first ran for public office from northern Michigan for the state senate. As you may perhaps know, I was part of the so-called moderates. I discovered when I successfully arrived in Lansing that there were other Republicans then, the so-called moderates that believed as I did, and we set out to try to change state government. And as a matter of fact, we did do that. Many times we coalesced with our Democratic counterparts in the senate to achieve certain objectives and goals. We were successful in taking over the committee chairmanships in that kind of a coalition.
The result was that the Republican Party, I think, in Michigan became a more responsible party. If I were starting all over, I think I’d attempt to pursue the same approach. And I regret that in some respects, the Republican Party has veered far from that goal and that objective.
Sun: You said “in some respects.” Are there respects in which the Republican Party has not veered far from what you think it stands for?
Milliken: (Chuckles) I’m thinking hard to come up with a response to that question. Let us pass on to the next question.
Sun: What can we as citizens do to pull us, our politics and our discourse, back from this polarized political culture in which we find ourselves?
Milliken: We as individual citizens, I think first of all, ought to inform ourselves on the issues of the day, ought to read widely and carefully, ought to come up with our own view of what the role of government is. And then to attempt through personal involvement, not necessarily to run for public office, but involvement as citizens in the life of our times, and try thereby to influence how political parties function.
Sometimes I think that we don’t as individual citizens speak up, and express our views when we feel that the political system is off-track, and that a political party is off-track. We need to speak out, we need to be honest and courageous in our views and express them publicly and privately, and thereby attempt to influence the direction in which our country or our state is going. The best recommendation I would make is for individual citizens to speak up when they see something they feel is wrong in our political system or wrong in the approach that some of our political leaders are taking.
Right now that means, to me, speaking up and speaking out about some of the directions the Republican Party is taking in Washington under the leadership of Mr. (Ohio Congressman and House Minority Speaker John) Boehner.
Sun: There’s this adage, growing up in the Midwest, that politics and religion are to be avoided at the dinner table, especially when one’s family has different views than one does. Should we avoid politics at the dining room table? What do you think?
Milliken: I’m prejudice in that sense, because I grew up in a family, which around the dinner table talked freely and openly and constructively about our political life. My father was a state senator, my grandfather was a state senator. My family always talked about issues. Not necessarily about personalities, but about issues — what was right and what was wrong. I was imbued with that approach and that philosophy.
Contrary to avoiding politics and religion around the dinner table, we ought to open up our ideas and our thoughts within our own families and beyond, and above all, speak out when we see a wrong being committed. Speak out and not be afraid. I tried to do that in my political life, and my family encouraged that from the very beginning.
Sun: Let’s talk issues for a moment. What are the most important issues, or political solutions today in Michigan, nationwide, and worldwide that politicians need to address?
Milliken: I think there’s a general awareness that the economy and the creation of jobs is a fundamental issue crying out for understanding and enlightenment. We have a terrible situation, within our country and within Michigan, of unemployment. There’s nothing more devastating to a family, or to a state, or for that matter, to a political party, if those institutions fail to address the problem today. I see that as a very basic issue that we cannot ignore.
I think the President is trying to deal with that problem. I think he, in a very affective way — I don’t know whether you heard any parts of his Labor Day speech in Milwaukee — I thought, his basic theme was that we’ve got to deal with the problem of unemployment, we’ve got to do it in a constructive way, and I think that his approach is a constructive way.
The regrettable thing is that the Republicans may not see it that way. His proposal to deal with the infrastructure within the country and within the states, thereby helping to solve the problems not only of deteriorating infrastructures, but also to begin to deal effectively with the problems of unemployment, I see that as a very fundamental issue.
Sun: Let’s take a look at the other side of the coin, then, and ask what issues, in your mind, have become the focus of politics that should not command as much attention?
Milliken: Well, I happen to believe that the deficit is a serious problem that we’ll have to deal with, but I do not think it should be such an overriding issue that it forecloses any genuine attempt to begin to use, constructively, dollars that involve the expenditure of funds at the federal level to deal again with the unemployment problem and many other problems that we do confront.
The Republican Party seems to feel that that every time we decide to spend some money, mainly in the stimulus-type approach to address critical problems in the country, that we must find a means of paying for it at that very moment, and I don’t happen to agree on that. There will be a lot of Republicans who won’t agree with me on that (chuckles).
Sun: Governor, what about some of the social issues that keep popping up: gay marriage, abortion, stem cell research, all of these things? Were these even talked about, to the degree they are now, when you were governor, and should they be talked about as political issues?
Milliken: They should continue to be talked about, and they were, to a lesser extent, issues during my governorship. But I’ve always believed strongly in freedom of choice for women. I believe strongly in stem cell research. Those are volatile and difficult subjects. But they were major issues even at my time. I believe that gay marriage is an issue that has been made into a volatile issue and it should not. I believe that freedom of choice for gay marriage is right, and it’s one that we ought to be supportive of. … Stem cell research provides great hope for the future. We ought to be willing to speak out in favor of it.
Sun: Tell us about your support for Rick Snyder for governor? Why? What do you like about him?
Milliken: I like and respect him. I did not know him early on: I met him through my son, who lives in Ann Arbor, as Rick does. Subsequently, I got to know him well, and came to develop a growing respect for him. I think he is and will be a very constructive influence for the Republican Party. I think his approach as a moderate, constructive one. He believes that the problems of the cities and Michigan today are genuine problems that ought to concern government. And he’s very sympathetic to the approach that I took, in dealing with the problems of Detroit. I think, wherever he goes, he talks about cities and how we must recognize the problems that exist within the cities. Unless we can deal constructively with them — notably Detroit, but not excluding other cities in Michigan — we will be a state in trouble.
I like what he stands for. Yet I don’t agree with (his position on) freedom of choice. But I don’t think he’ll ever attempt to demagogue the issue or play it for political gain. I think he will not hesitate to speak his conviction in that area, but he will not attempt to exploit it politically. So I like him, as you can gather. I think he brings a background and experience which is quite valuable. He graduated from the University of Michigan with a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s degree and also graduated from the University of Michigan Law School. He’s had a very successful businesses career. And I think the experience and the background in that field will be useful and helpful in dealing with some of Michigan’s problems.
That he’s had no legislative or governmental experience directly, I do not think, will be drawback to achieving success politically if and when he is elected governor. I feel overall very comfortable with the prospects of Rick Snyder becoming governor of Michigan.
Sun: Governor, what can the next governor of Michigan, reasonably speaking, hope to accomplish during his tenure?
Milliken: To be successful, number one to the extent that he is able to bring people together, that means people within the legislature, Republicans and Democrats. He’s going to have to work with Democrats in the legislature as I did. And he’s going to have to find ways to not politicize that relationship, in the sense of not playing politics with his Democratic opponents in the legislature. I think he will find ways to work effectively with Republicans and Democrats in the legislature. To the extent that he can do that, he will make some very good progress.
When I was governor, I never considered my Democratic friends as enemies. They might be opponents in certain areas, but never did I consider them to be enemies. I think that’s a basic approach that Rick Snyder will take. He will find ways to develop coalitions and develop working arrangements. To the extent that he does that, I think he will be successful.
Sun: What are your thoughts on Michigan Supreme Court Justice Betty Weaver’s resignation and the deal she struck with Governor Granholm? Did you see that coming or were you surprised?
Milliken: It didn’t take me by surprise any more than it took (Michigan political columnist, and Glen Arbor resident) George Weeks by surprise. Weaver is a very independent-minded person. She had not developed a good working relationship with her Republican colleagues on the court. So it was not unexpected that she would make the decision that she did make. I think she’s been an independent spirit, and has served a useful purpose in speaking to change some of the approaches within the court, and to modernize the court and to reform it in a number of ways.
The court has been consumed in a partisan way, and that’s unfortunate. I think Betty Weaver now having made the decision to leave the court and having worked out an arrangement with the Governor, I think to that affect will be an improved functioning court.
It’s absurd, isn’t it, that we nominate justices in political parties in a partisan way and then expect them to run as nonpartisan. That’s unfortunate. I haven’t met the new justice, but I will be meeting with him shortly, and I understand that he’s a very effective and decisive and fair-minded person. So we shall see. But I think Betty Weaver’s approach has been helpful and constructive. We shall see.
Sun: Governor, you mentioned President Obama earlier, and his speech in Milwaukee. You initially endorsed John McCain during the 2008 election, but then retracted that endorsement. How did that work out?
Milliken: I felt that John McCain, midway through the election, was not the John McCain that I knew and liked. I felt that he had become so intensely partisan and bitter, he was not the man who I had initially endorsed. I did not end up publicly supporting Obama. But I came to have increasing respect and admiration for him. And that was a factor in the decision I made with respect for John McCain, who I felt was very negative.
Sun: How would you rate President Obama’s performance in office and his accomplishments?
Milliken: He’s been faced with incredible problems, many of which he inherited, but problems that almost no human being (chuckles) can be expected to confront on a daily basis and be successful in every respect. I continue to admire and respect him and wish him well. I think that he’s going to have a tough time achieving his objectives with the Congress that is now there, particularly the role of the Boehner Republicans.
I like and respect the President, and I wish him well. And I think he has an almost impossible human challenge before him. And I don’t think that in every respect he’s measured up as some of us had hoped. But he’s achieved a great deal already: the reformation on Wall Street, the health care reform. In other areas I think he’s done well in the face of the opposition that he’s had. So I wish him well.
Sun: We’ve talked about Republicans quite a bit. How about the Democratic Party and the directions in which they’re going, how they’ve changed since you were governor. Any constructive criticism?
Milliken: I’m thinking of the Democratic Party that I worked with in Michigan. We had, on the whole, such a cooperative working arrangement with them. They didn’t always agree with me, and they put up opponents to oppose me. But on the whole, one of the things that I and they did was to set up meetings in my office during the peak of the legislative sessions with the Republican leaders of both the house and senate, and the Democratic leaders of the house and senate. We would meet jointly in my office, and attempt to hammer out agreements on some of the proposals that I was making, and find a way to move forward. And it worked.
I think that’s the kind of thing that Rick Snyder will be doing if he is the next governor. I think Jennifer Granholm has tried to do that, perhaps not as successfully. But what’s so desperately needed today in Washington is less partisanship, less name-calling, less bitterness, less dirty politics, and a greater willingness to find ways to get the two parties to work together in the common interest of country.
Sun: Governor, any predictions on who might be the next Republican presidential candidate, and conversely, who would you like to run in 2012 against Obama?
Milliken: Well, I hadn’t thought about who would run against him. I know that a number of Republicans see themselves as potential candidates or who have ambitions to run, but I don’t see anyone at the moment. I didn’t answer that forthrightly, and I don’t intend to. It’s not a difficult question, but I’m going to keep my views and my thoughts open until I see more of what happens within the Republican Party and the Democratic party.
Sun: Who do you see as rising stars, within Michigan, or nationwide, whom you see as carrying your banner or your ideals, Republican or Democrat?
Milliken: I don’t see a rising star in the Republican Party in (Virginia Congressman and Republican Whip) Eric Cantor or John Boehner. Frankly, I’m gonna pass on that question.
Sun: How about Rick Snyder?
Milliken: I think Rick Snyder has a very promising future. Of course he’s just starting. We’ll have to see how he copes with all of the problems and challenges that he will inevitably face. But I have big hopes and expectations for him.
Sun: How is retirement treating you? How are you keeping yourself busy these days?
Milliken: Well, I don’t consider myself retired. I stay very active, not politically, but on issues. Every morning I come to computer and I print out the New York Times special stories and editorials, and my wife and I discuss matters over the breakfast table. Then I get the printed edition of the Times again in the afternoon.
Sun: Speaking of that, where do you get your news: what else do you read, what do you listen to, what do you watch?
Milliken: Well, I get the New York Times every day except Sunday, and I read the Traverse City Record Eagle for the local news. I think they’re doing a good job: they have several excellent columnists. I just renewed my subscription to the Progressive magazine from Wisconsin. We get the Christian Science Monitor regularly. That’s a fine publication, in magazine format now.
I listen regularly to Chris Matthews (on MSNBC) who I find provocative. Some things I don’t like about him, though, that make me angry, such as when he asks a guest the question and then he answers the question himself. I like (MSNBC commentators) Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann very much. We listen to those programs. I never listen to Fox News. I get so angry about their coverage, so I don’t listen. Perhaps I should. It’s so biased, so negative.
Sun: George Weeks told me that you love Riverfront Pizza in Glen Arbor. What else do you like to do when you visit our neck of the woods, and Leelanau County in general?
Milliken: I think Leelanau County is one of the most beautiful counties, not just in the state but throughout the country. We face a constant battle to preserve its beauty and to keep it environmentally sound. But it is a beautiful county. I look forward to driving out there and coming to Glen Arbor and Glen Haven, in particular. An ideal day for me would involve calling George Weeks and arranging for us to get together for lunch. We do that quite often. I like to drive out there so that Helen and I can observe the beauty along the way.