Gretchen Whitmer Under Pressure

Joe Biden was hoping for a competent centrist who could help carry the Midwest. Michigan’s governor turned out to be something else.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer (Michigan Daily)

“Courage is grace under pressure.”

— Ernest Hemingway

The 48-year-old governor got her nickname by fussing over health and safety issues like a mother bear with cubs. In 2018, it was a winning theme and brought Whitmer into the statehouse by a margin of 10%, a stunning victory from a state that gave Donald Trump the presidency just two years before. It didn’t take long for Nancy Pelosi to call her up from the minor leagues. Whitmer had the privilege of rebutting President Trump’s State of the Union. The New York Times described the rookie governor in breathless terms as “fresh, smart, witty, bold — and from a state that the Democrats need.”

For a while, she looked unstoppable.

Whitmer’s Fall

In my classes on leadership, I often refer to Ernest Hemingway’s expression, “Courage is grace under pressure.” What the old fisherman meant was the ability to maintain balance in the heat of battle. As an aficionado of bullfighting, Hemingway knew how easy it was to make rash judgments in high stakes situations. Whitmer would have done well to read him.

The Michigan governor’s fall from grace began on April 30th as she misjudged the mood of the crowd during the Lansing protests. When she issued the nation’s toughest covid-19 lockdown on March 2020, according to the Washington Post, her move was fatally ill-timed. The Post’s Henry Olsen pointed out plant nurseries were forced to close on the eve of the Spring season, and then she followed up with a two punch, the strictest shelter in place lockdown for landscapers, ignoring the obvious fact they work outdoors. To Michiganders, it seemed absurd. But Whitmer wasn’t playing hardball, she was playing politics.

According to Olsen, Whitmer has a habit of going full throttle when it doesn’t help. He noted that she ran on a campaign platform to “fix the damn roads,” but made good on the promise by levying a gas tax of 45-cents-per-gallon. In Detroit, that went over like a tax on keyboards in Silicon Valley.

Whitmer’s Way

“She uttered the most ill-conceived political rhetoric since Alexander Hamilton whispered to Aaron Burr, “let’s do this.”

Disconcertingly to Whitmer, the Lansing protests were orderly. According to The Guardian, the crew of upper peninsula and wester Michigan freedom fighters acted like boy scouts, “agreeing to have their temperature taken by police as they entered. Inside, they sang the national anthem and chanted: “Let us work.” When it was over, “the police made only one arrest, a 35-year-old male for assaulting another protester.”

So she focused on their attire. That was when Whitmer lost it. She called them “the most awful parts of our history,” and by doing so, ignored the lesson her party stalwart taught us when she uttered the most ill-conceived political rhetoric since Alexander Hamilton whispered to Aaron Burr, “let’s do this.” It was the time that Hillary Clinton addressed a 2016 fundraiser and famously denounced her opponent’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables.”

But she had a moment of hesitation that went unnoticed by the media, and then added, “Right?”

While the $1,000 per plate guests laughed and applauded, Clinton’s one-word hesitation was what gamblers call a “tell.” Donald Trump rode into the Oval Office on the blowback, reminding Clinton and her party that the heartland forgives, but does not forget.

Not Average

“Disregarding the long-standing rivalries between rural and urban Americans is so pre-2016.”

As you look at the map below, note that Trump won all county’s colored red, which demonstrates how formidable a candidate Whitmer had to be in 2016. She did it by working across the aisle, but when she shut down nurseries on the eve of the planting season, it deepened the divide.

Map created by Mike

Michigan has conservative majorities in rural areas and a liberal majority in urban regions, like most states in the country. But from there, the data get interesting. According to Bridge, a non-partisan Michigan news source, Michigan’s liberal counties show 4.5% greater allegiance to the Democratic Party than the national average. But rural counties are 10.5% more Republican than conservatives in the rest of the country or twice as intense in the way they think about government.

Her second error was failing to realize Michigan is one of the most “rural” states in the country. “Among the top 15 most populated states, only Indiana and North Carolina have smaller percentages living in urban areas.” Her disregard of the long-standing differences in culture between rural and urban regions is a classic mistake, so very 2016.

Fateful Error

Whitmer acknowledged her lockdown was harsh. She would add it was also necessary. But protesters from rural Michigan argued it cripples the statewide economy with little effect on safety since the majority of deaths are in the south-eastern Detroit metro. While Michigan sat in limbo, many states, including Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Ohio, restarted their economies. Even in uber-liberal Governor Gavin Newsom announced that “clothing, book and music stores — as well as florists in time for Mother’s Day — could open as soon as Friday.” California could afford to open, Michigan could not.

If a shot at the vice presidency was her goal, Whitmer’s political gamble may backfire. As the rest of the country is getting back to work, she turned a local shouting match into a national brawl while Joe Biden watched from the sidelines. When he first became aware of Whitmer, Biden saw a competent centrist from the industrial heartland and, perhaps wistfully, a female who could help his defense against allegations of sexual misconduct. Instead, Whitmer turned out to be just another opportunist with a habit of lashing out at folks from the Midwest. Right?

Professor of Leadership. Extraordinary Lives Project. Author “Be Somebody” (2021); 2019 Telly Award; ex-publisher Forbes