Granholm v. Engler: A tale of two portraits ( The Michigan View 05.09.11)

Posted by hpayne on May 9, 2011

A picture is worth a thousand words. Two portraits are worth a second look.

Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm unveiled her official portrait in the Capitol rotunda last week where it will hang next to the image of her predecessor, John Engler. Both are gorgeous, full body, oil-rendered depictions of their subjects. But in the details – what the respective leaders wanted included as symbols of their governorships – they could not be more different.


If Michigan is to learn the lesson why the state boomed under Engler and suffered a “lost decade” in the Granholm era, the devil is in the details.

Engler and Granholm represent the ideological poles of Michigan politics. A small government, free market advocate, Engler is an enduring hero to Michigan conservatives. Granholm, by contrast, was a liberal Democratic Socialist in the European tradition, who believed government dictated economic development. If Engler is Michigan’s Ronald Reagan, then Granholm is its Barack Obama.

Granholm’s portrait is a study in arrogant Big Government – its egoism testimony to a statist philosophy that helped double Michigan’s unemployment to 15 percent in her second term while putting its government on an unsustainable fiscal path. Rather than inspirations “for future and present generations,” the painting’s symbols are time capsule relics – alternative energy white (green?) elephants that have no future without massive taxpayer subsidy.

Wearing a commander’s jacket (Master and Commander Granholm!), the now-Berkeley prof ponders a small globe – ironic given her xenophobic habit of demonizing companies for doing business abroad. Not once in eight years did the Big Labor puppet visit China.

Though the window-lit painting echoes the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer’s style in “Woman with a Water Jug,” Granholm is no household servant: Governor Granholm alone knows what industries will take Michigan into the future. Next to the globe is a wind turbine – symbolic of this Green disciple’s pipe dream that the Michigan industrial colossus can run – like Vermeer’s 17th century Holland – on wind.

A small model of a plug-in Chevy Volt also rests by the globe, another reminder of her global warming preoccupation. The product of federal mandates forcing automakers to meet arbitrary mpg standards, the Volt is a federally-subsidized status symbol for Granholm’s wealthy new California neighbors.

Speaking of tax breaks for the rich, a third green symbol is a shovel, propped in the corner. It was used in the ground-breaking for LG Chem’s Holland, Michigan plant which will supply batteries for the Volt. Granholm coordinated some $300 million in public subsidy for the Big Green multinational.

The final piece of Granholm’s vision is a painting of the Ford Rouge plant – “transforming the state’s economy from rust to green,” she says. The plant represents the past for a governor who claims oil – who knew that a Harvard-trained lawyer could pick the commodities of the future! – is yesterday’s energy. Like Obama, Granholm is about “transforming” America to her new utopia.

The conservative Engler’s portrait – like his vision of government – is far more modest.

Engler’s symbols are ideas, not politically-correct monuments. There are no white elephants in his portrait, only a pachyderm representing his party. The most prominent icon is a bust of Abraham Lincoln, a man of liberty.

The most prominent symbol? Engler’s red and blue Adam Smith necktie, an homage to the philosophical father of free market capitalism.

Otherwise, Engler’s portrait is a celebration of books informing his belief that government’s role is not to dictate to entrepreneurs – but to provide them an unfettered climate in which to thrive. There are Martin Anderson’s biography of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs, and the minutes of a Michigan constitutional convention.

Disabused of Granholm’s grandiose notions of “transforming” the economy, Engler focused on what he could control – Michigan’s government. Unlike his successor – who ignored the growing cracks in the state’s fiscal foundation – Engler achieved significant structural change including tax, education, and welfare reform.

As a result of Engler’s hands-off, pro-growth policies, Michigan’s unemployment rate plummeted from 9 percent to just 3.4 percent during his tenure. While Granholm decrees an empty future, Engler presided over a “rust belt” state that – for five years in a row – led the nation in industrial expansion.

Fortunately for Michigan, the pendulum has swung again. Governor Rick Snyder has rejected Granholm’s utopia for a return to Engler’s tax fundamentals. Hopefully, his portrait will be as modest.

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