Op-Ed: What President Obama Can Learn from Gov. Milliken

by on January 26, 2009

President-Elect Barack Obama has been making conciliatory gestures to those who opposed him since he won the election in November, bringing to mind the governing style of Michigan’s longest-serving chief executive: William G. Milliken. Obama will take the Presidential oath in the same month that marks the 40th anniversary of Milliken’s swearing-in. Are there lessons the new President–and we–can draw from the moderate Republican Milliken’s nearly 14-year span as governor?

The answer is a qualified “yes,” despite the change in political style, tone and substance between 1969 and 2009.

Milliken was able to do two things at once–something that modern campaigns and politicians seem to think is impossible, like chewing gum and walking. He showed that he could be an unabashed member of his own political party and firm in his beliefs without demonizing–and while recognizing the legitimacy of–his opposition.

It wasn’t easy. When he became governor in January 1969, Milliken had not won an election to the office but was sworn in to replace George Romney, who had resigned to take a place in the Cabinet of President Richard Nixon. With no confirmation by ballot, Milliken was viewed by Democrats as potentially easy prey for knocking off in the 1970 election. They were not inclined to make him look good by going along with his initiatives.

Immediately sounding a moderate note, Milliken said he would be tackling issues not always identified with his party, including urban policy. “Those citizens of Michigan who live in remote parts of the state–remote from the urban centers in a geographical sense–where urban problems seem so very, very far away, cannot sit smugly by, in tranquility, while our cities sink in despair,” he said. “For the most practical and moral lesson which experience offers is simply this: that the well-being of each of us, and the quality of our own existence and that of our children, is bound up with the lives and well-being of countless others whose lives may never directly touch our own.”

But Milliken took pains to speak to his Republican base, concerned about rising crime rates, and promised tough laws and enforcement. While reaching out to the opposition on issues like environmental protection and treatment of cities and minority populations, Milliken held fast to Republican approaches on other issues, including reform of worker’s compensation and aid for private schools. In the same way, Obama can hold on to his base by forging initiatives aimed at working families, clean air and water and civil liberties while trying to find common ground with Republicans on some economic, education and national security questions.

Like Obama, nice-guy Milliken early on inspired speculation about his weakness. “The Legislature would eat him for breakfast every morning,” said one Democrat. It didn’t happen. Milliken’s civility wasn’t manufactured, and the new governor disarmed many Democrats even when he persisted in disagreeing with them on issues “He’s really one of the nicest men in the world, but when he was determined to do something, and usually it was something he thought was important for the state, he pursued it,” aide Billie Harrison said. Obama will soon need to show he, too, has a steel backbone on the issues that matter most to him.

Milliken also understood the need to cultivate reporters who covered him. In a remarkable display of transparency that is hard to imagine today, he allowed reporters into his office suite in the Capitol. “You could literally go in and sit in his office and monitor him all day, who was going in and out,” said Capitol veteran reporter Tim Skubick. Journalists appreciated the openness and rarely, if ever exploited it for cheap headlines.

Born and raised in a conventional, prosperous Traverse City household but shaped by life-threatening experiences in World War II, Milliken may seem a million miles from a new President from a one-parent family who has not seen combat. Yet there is an unmistakable similarity of temperament in the two men, and it seems, in governing style.

It’s important to remember, however, that at the end of his long tenure as governor, Republican voters chose a nominee to replace him who disowned Milliken’s moderation, attacked feminists and labor, and decried the Governor’s legacy as too “Democratic.” Although that nominee was defeated in November 1982, politics began to coarsen in the 1980s and 1990s. The 1982 election presaged the replacement of the era of conciliation was replaced with an age of partisan warfare.

If Obama is genuine in his willingness to respect the opposition–and if that opposition reciprocates–if he embraces Democratic issue priorities while taking the best of what Republicans have to offer, and if he governs with transparency rather than secrecy, he’ll be close to the Milliken model. What remains to be seen is whether political conciliation, like our economy, moves in cycles of boom and bust, or is permanently relegated to the dustbin of history.

Dave Dempsey is the author is William G. Milliken: Michigan’s Passionate Moderate

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