Friday marked two weeks since Michigan’s longest-serving governor, moderate Republican Bill Milliken, died at age 97. And the state GOP has already moved on.
In fact, the MIGOP, other than a few perfunctory tributes within the first 24 hours of Milliken’s passing, has shunned the governor in death just as the party did in the past 30 years of his life. Milliken, who served as the state’s leader from 1969-83, was dismissed as a relic – a political dinosaur, a RINO (Republican In Name Only) or worse – by the conservatives who gradually took hold of the state party from the Millikenites in the 1980s.
Milliken was labeled a liberal Republican, a “Rockefeller Republican” who stood in sharp contrast to the Reagan Republicans. He avoided partisan rhetoric and dogma in favor of a pragmatic approach. His top aide, Bill Rustem, recalled that Milliken served in “an age of civility when compromise was not a bad word, and when you listened instead of shouted.”
But in recent years he infuriated hardcore party loyalists by endorsing Democrats for high office such as John Kerry, Jennifer Granholm and Gary Peters.
Grand Traverse County Republicans disavowed him, passing a resolution that booted him from his hometown county part, for reasons that included his veto of an abortion bill 34 years earlier. Ultimately, he was despised because he refused to march in lockstep and broke the cardinal rule: “Republicans exist to elect Republicans.”
The resentment reached a crescendo in 2016 when Milliken endorsed Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.
Of course, the former governor was the ultimate anti-Trump figure in Michigan politics – gentlemanly, soft-spoken, courteous, always willing to reach across the partisan aisle to engage in pragmatic solutions.
Dennis Lennox, a Michigan political commentator wrote in a guest column last week published by The Washington Times that Milliken had watched the Republican Party pass him by:
Unlike his contemporary and longtime political ally George H.W. Bush,
Mr. Milliken never evolved. That’s because he left office in January
1983. Meanwhile, George Bush, as President Reagan’s vice president,
had to move toward the party’s ascendant conservative wing to ensure
his own political future. (Of course, Bush was hardly the only
moderate or liberal Republican to move further to the right in the
name of political expediency.)
Regardless, Mr. Milliken was the last unreformed or unrepentant
Rockefeller Republican. His tribe, which includes so many great
(mid-20th Century) names, is no more.
To be clear, Rockefeller Republicans began fading away just before Milliken was elevated from his position as lieutenant governor. But centrist Republicans began disappearing throughout the 1980s and ‘90s until far-right tribalism in the GOP dominated during the Iraq War and the 2008 McCain campaign for presidency.
It reached a new level in 2015 when candidate Donald Trump, who avoided military service in Vietnam under highly questionable circumstances, famously said that he respects soldiers “who are not captured” – a nasty slap at former POW McCain that received little blowback from GOP loyalists.
To say that Milliken mistakenly “never evolved” is to claim that the former governor, a World War II hero in his own right, represented a shunned brand of moderate, post-war Republicanism that prevailed for decades, nearly to the end of the century, and was then tossed aside.
Yet, his stands on environmental protection, civil rights, women’s rights and same-sex marriage now serve as standard fare among the majority of Americans.
All of this is not to say that the Democrats in 2019 don’t have a similar predicament with experienced, moderate Dem officials callously disparaged by the new crop of left-wingers in the party. These ultraliberals continue to engage in pure fantasy, casually demanding radical proposals (by 20th Century standards) with multi-trillion-dollar price tags, such as Medicare For All and the Green New Deal.
These liberal firebrands have set a haughty litmus test that says the longtime centrists must evolve and embrace far-reaching “democratic socialism.” And it should be lost on no one that these right/left tribes in the two parties consider anyone with a similar approach to politics as Bill Milliken a dinosaur that deserves extinction.