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Michigan: DeVos Panics Over 'Drop Dead' Message

By Thomas Bray

Even candidates for state office are trying hard to turn the off-year elections into a referendum on President Bush. Case in point: Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm's harsh criticism of Bush - and by implication, her Republican opponent for governor, Dick DeVos - for refusing so far to meet with Detroit auto executives about the "crisis" now being experienced by domestic manufacturers.

As I wrote in July, not since Gerald Ford's "Drop Dead" message to New York City in the 1970s has a President exhibited such a chilly demeanor towards a politically significant constituency. Earlier the President had icily opined that what's ailing the domestic auto companies, who still account for a substantial fraction of the gross domestic product, is a failure to produce "relevant" vehicles.

All of which even has some Michigan Republicans ducking for cover, including former businessman DeVos himself.

After my colleague Daniel Howes of the Detroit News issued another blast last week at Bush for allegedly stiffing the auto execs, DeVos called a hasty press conference. "We're being ignored here in Michigan by the White House, and it has got to stop," complained DeVos, who called on the White House "to get it done and to hold this meeting."

Some in the Lansing press corps have expressed suspicion that it's a set-up. According to this scenario, President Bush will finally relent, allowing DeVos to "prove" that he has the clout to look after the state's interests. Gov. Granholm's repeated calls for federal help for manufacturers have gone nowhere. President Bush is scheduled to be in Michigan in early September for a fund-raiser for U.S. Senate candidate Mike Bouchard. "Maybe he could meet with [auto executives] then," says a DeVos spokesman.

But what would such a meeting accomplish beyond some political gloss? Far from defusing the issue, it would soon be followed by "where-is-the-beef" demands. And the mere prospect of a federal bailout would bring a rapid halt to the necessary adjustment process, among other things removing pressure on the United Auto Workers - whose members earn wages and benefits far above the American average for manufacturing - to take a more realistic attitude in next year's labor negotiations.

As for the companies themselves, they should be careful what they wish for: the price of a temporary bailout, whatever its form, is likely to be a permanent increase in regulation of the industry, including a big increase in the counterproductive fuel economy standards. DeVos's panicky reaction may reflect the fact that after a brilliant take-off, thanks in part to a record-setting $10 million TV ad campaign financed in part out of the Amway heir's very deep pockets, he has been slipping in the polls. A recent survey by Lansing-based EPIC-MRA showed Granholm surging back to a 49-42 lead after ads accusing DeVos of "Bush economics."

What DeVos should have said in his press conference was that the best thing Bush could do for Michigan and its auto manufacturers is to reduce burdensome regulations and taxes - in other words, the same medicine DeVos has been ardently prescribing for Michigan. He could also have pointed out that precisely because Gerald Ford refused to bail out New York City, Gotham was finally forced to get its act together. Today nobody quarrels that New York is a lot better off.

Nobody doubts DeVos's credentials as a Republican. But even before turning on Bush, DeVos had endorsed a higher state minimum wage, lectured oil companies to cut prices and come out against a referendum that would put an end to racial preferences in state hiring and admissions.

Maybe voters are beginning to wonder who DeVos really is. As Republicans should have learned anything by now, when voters are presented with a choice between a Democrat and a Republican who acts like a Democrat, they will choose the real Democrat every time.

Tom Bray writes columns for The Detroit News and Email:

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