GOP’s Engine Sputters in Michigan

Times Staff Writers

Michigan has been shaping up as one of the few bright spots for Republicans in the coming elections, with the GOP hoping to strip Democrats of the governor’s office and a U.S. Senate seat.

But in an unusual development, prominent Republicans there are complaining that President Bush needs to become more engaged in a top issue driving the election: the declining fortunes of the state’s auto industry.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos lashed out at the White House this week for not having set up a long-promised meeting with executives of the Big Three automakers, which are being squeezed by high healthcare costs and shrinking market share.

“We’re being ignored here in Michigan by the White House, and it has got to stop,” DeVos, who is challenging Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, told reporters.


“It is wrong, and the behavior is inexcusable,” DeVos said in a written statement Thursday. “The president needs to meet with the Big Three, and it must happen soon. Jobs are at stake.”

An aide to Rep. Joseph Knollenberg (R-Mich.) said her boss “strongly suggested” to Bush’s chief political strategist, Karl Rove, that the White House meet with Detroit automakers as soon as possible. State GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis said Friday that he delivered a similar message to Rove.

“We want to get the president and the White House engaged in addressing the unique issues that affect Michigan ... and work with us to come up with some solutions,” Anuzis said in an interview.

He said DeVos was “expressing some of the frustration that is being felt here in Michigan amongst all voters.”


White House officials said Friday that a meeting would be arranged. But it will have to navigate some political and ideological hurdles.

While Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. have announced domestic job cuts, foreign-owned automobile manufacturing plants are expanding in the U.S. The foreign-owned plants are newer, often nonunion and located in the South -- and their workers are trending Republican and are increasingly providing a base of support for the president and the Republican Party.

Nonunion automobile workers have been targets of GOP outreach efforts in Kentucky, Tennessee and other battleground states in the last few elections.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) recently told the Washington Post: “There’s a new definition of the American auto industry. Twenty-five years ago, it was the Big Three companies in Detroit. Now, the definition is any company that makes a substantial number of cars and trucks in the U.S. and has a big payroll here, pays big taxes here and buys supplies here.”

The Assn. of International Automobile Manufacturers estimates that its members are directly or indirectly responsible for more than 1.8 million U.S. jobs.

Bush himself made clear in January that he was not inclined to bail out troubled U.S. auto companies.

“I think it’s very important for the market to function,” he said, adding that companies needed to manufacture “a product that’s relevant.” His remarks, to the Wall Street Journal, provoked loud complaints from Michigan Democrats.

The president “just does not get it,” Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) said at the time. Dingell and the state’s senators, both Democrats, pointed out that U.S. automakers have healthcare, currency and pension costs that foreign automakers do not, giving their competitors an edge in the marketplace.


Michigan politicians want attention from Washington because one after another of the state’s auto companies has acknowledged financial difficulties. The automobile industry employs about a fifth of the state’s workforce.

In January, General Motors announced that it lost $4.8 billion in the fourth quarter of 2005, ending the company’s first unprofitable year since 1992.

This month, Ford announced it would cut production in North America by 21%. GOP Senate candidate Michael Bouchard called it “another severe blow to our state and our families” and vowed that, if elected senator, he would “get results for our manufacturers.”

“I am going to encourage the president to meet with the automakers,” Bouchard said in an interview Friday. But he placed overall blame for inaction on his opponent, Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, not on the White House.

Bouchard said he mentioned the issue this week to Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, who was visiting the state. Mehlman told him that manufacturers’ concern was a top issue at the White House, Bouchard said.

But Dingell noted that though Bush had not met with the Big Three, he had found time to hold fundraisers as well as to meet with “American Idol” contestants.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you see a lot of political theater over the next few weeks as they try to appear concerned about the domestic auto industry in an attempt to prop up a candidate who now must answer real questions,” Dingell said in a written statement Thursday. “Dick DeVos put quite a bit of money into the Bush campaign and into the national Republican Party. If he really cared about the auto industry, he should have spoken up years ago.”

White House spokesman Alex Conant said Friday: “The president wants to meet with Detroit automotive executives, and we are hopeful we can schedule something soon.”


He said the White House shared Detroit’s concerns about healthcare costs and global competition. “Making American manufacturers more competitive is a top priority for the administration, and you can see it in our healthcare and competitiveness initiatives.”

This week the president signed an executive order to increase the flow of consumer information on healthcare pricing and quality, a step that the White House says will reduce costs.