Susan J. Demas: What the mean-girl, media-bashing GOP Mackinac confab tells us about 2020

Mike Pence | Gage Skidmore, Flickr

If you wanted evidence that, despite beltway pundits’ plaintive claims, both parties are not the same, just compare the mean-girl rhetoric of the GOP Mackinac confab this weekend to the Democratic presidential debate wonkfest in Detroit back in July.

The last two large-scale political party events in Michigan really couldn’t be more different.

The first Dem debate at the Fox Theatre in Detroit kicked off with a 45-minute health care exchange, where CNN moderators desperately tried to pit progressives U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Minn.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) against more moderate opponents (with only backbenchers like former U.S. Rep. John Delaney taking the bait).

Moderators try to pit Warren, Sanders against moderates in 1st Detroit Dem debate

In the two-night event, 20 hopefuls also had long, substantive discussions on immigration, trade, environmental policy, manufacturing, infrastructure, Detroit’s comeback and more. Exchanges were belied by a commitment to basic decency, an idea that’s been shredded by the President Trump administration that’s willing to send our military to defend Saudi oil fields after leaders had a Washington Post journalist dismembered and that throws migrant children in cages.

Doctors Catholic Charities NGO are hand to examine patients and to distribute medicine to Warao Indians on May 16, 2017 in Manaus. Hundreds have fled, creating a refugee crisis. | Victor Moriyama, Getty Images

“We’ve got a crisis on our hands,” said South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. “And it’s not just a crisis of immigration; it’s a crisis of cruelty and incompetence that has created a humanitarian disaster on our southern border. It is a stain on the United States of America.”

The swells who gathered on Mackinac Island for the Michigan GOP’s biennial conference didn’t appear to talk about the immigrant children who have been raped and killed in detention facilities (and I’m not aware that media asked, either, although there was top-notch coverage of Vice President Mike Pence’s eight-car motorcade violating island protocol).

Republican lawmakers who took off for the swankfest also did so without passing most of next year’s state budgets, even though we’re on the brink of yet another government shutdown on Oct. 1, because responsible governance apparently is posting selfies on the Grand Hotel porch at cocktail hour.

Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island | Susan J. Demas

I should note that the Michigan Republican Party denied the Michigan Advance entry to their event, using the old “liberal bias” excuse, although we have the tapes from it, because, come on, digging up information is what we do.

The White House | Susan J. Demas

We have, of course, been credentialed by the White House, and have no problem dealing with the Republican National Committee, National Republican Congressional Committee and more. In my two decades as a journalist, I’ve personally covered six presidential campaigns and hundreds of other races and have never had anyone too scared to allow me access.

But for some reason, the MIGOP has decided to engage in “cancel culture,” which, I have heard from conservatives like RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel, is probably the biggest problem facing our nation today. Why, when Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke barred white nationalist outlet Breitbart from an event, it was a national scandal, with reporters rising up to defend the publication (even though its Nazi ties were well exposed). I am sure that we will become a similar cause célèbre, because both sides, amirite?

Vice President Mike Pence arrives in Middletown, Pennsylvania, Thursday, June 6, 2019 for an event at JLS Automation. | Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen, Flickr

Anyway, after going through the remarks of Pence, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, former Trump Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and more, it honestly doesn’t seem like we missed much, other than the usual Trump worship and chest-beating about 2020. Anyone with access to Twitter can get the same hackneyed lines.

“It’s been two-and-half years of promises made and promises kept,” Pence declared in a typical ode to his boss, which tend to be more syrupy than your average wedding vows.

Sanders, who was paid for years to lie to the American people, issued a dire warning of what would happen if her old boss isn’t reelected next year: “The chaos that will ensue — the destructive chaos that will take place if we allow the Democrats to win in 2020 — will be real.”

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Brian Zahra bemoaned that the fact that his GOP-nominated colleague, Kurtis Wilder, wasn’t reelected in 2018 was “devastating to the rule of law in Michigan.” That paved the way for Chief Justice Bridget McCormack — who was nominated by Democrats, but no one besides absolute Republican hacks thinks is anything other than one of the most brilliant jurists to serve on the court in recent memory.

Susan J. Demas: Republicans have accepted Trump is terrible. And they’ve decided Democrats are worse.

This is a helpful reminder, however, that Republicans don’t really consider any election that Democrats win to be legitimate, which is probably something worth considering if Trump does, in fact, go down in 2020.

When Republicans did talk policy, the discussion was about as deep as a kiddie pool. DeVos, fresh off visits to a couple Michigan charter schools where she falsely claimed that Michigan lags the country in school choice (she and her billionaire family have ensured that’s most certainly not the case), snickered at Democratic proposals for free college.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visits Detroit Edison Public School Academy, Sept. 20, 2019 | Allison Donahue

“You don’t need to be an economist to understand how this is crazy,” DeVos declared.

I don’t know, I kinda think it’s crazy that kids are drowning in student loans and her department is dedicated to helping predatory companies make the crisis worse.

There also was, of course, plenty of media bashing, with Pence sniffing that reporters are “in the tank” for Democrats (cry more, Mike) and state Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Holly), a former secretary of state, bizarrely asserting that “journalists are paid more if their stories get a lot of hits, incentivizing negative news and hit pieces,” according to MLive’s Malachi Barrett. (Quite a few reporters debunked this on Twitter).

The Grand Hotel, May 29, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

All and all, it sounds really awesome to spend a few days with plenty of people who hate you and don’t respect what you do. I’m personally looking forward to spending the money we saved on mileage and pricy hotel rooms so our reporters can dig more into real issues facing Michiganders across the state, like PFAS and strained school budgets.

I have a feeling that means more to voters than hearing Mike Pence’s lame jokes about bringing Mackinac fudge back home to his wife.

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Susan J. Demas is an 18-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

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