MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. — At the very moment last month that images of President Joe Biden falling on stage at the Air Force Academy’s commencement rocketed around the internet, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was reminding her state’s business executives and political leaders about what could have been.
Speaking at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual conference on this resort island, Whitmer won repeated applause from the centrist crowd by reciting the fruits of her party’s so-called trifecta in Lansing. With Democrats in control of the governor’s office and both chambers of the state Legislature following last year’s election, Whitmer noted, they had pushed through tax cuts, gun control measures and protections for abortion and gay rights.
And then, taking aim at Republican governors, she contrasted her record on the latter two issues with other, redder states, adding that she would also not “wage war with Mickey Mouse.”
Putting Michigan “on the right side of history,” Whitmer assured the slacks-and-sportcoat crowd, “is going to be good for business.”
This was before jokes about Mackinac-induced hangovers, “Yoopers and trolls” — those who live on both of Michigan’s peninsulas, longings for her adult daughters to remain in the state and a softball q-and-a with the Detroit Chamber chief during which Whitmer mused about luring Disney to Michigan. There was also a discussion of what Michigan State basketball legend Tom Izzo had termed the “KMA phase” of one’s career.
That Whitmer, 51, is decidedly not in that KMA phase was evident when I spoke to her at the to-die-for governor’s residence atop Mackinac (don’t call it a mansion!). She ruled out running for president next year even if Biden forgoes reelection, but allowed a resounding “maybe” to pursuing the White House down the road.
“Might I have the fire in the belly?” she said. “Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know. I can’t tell you.”
Pointing to the tension between her Midwestern modesty and the demands of running for president, she chuckled about having “to get comfortable bragging.”
A subsequent announcement, however, made it clear she’s willing to try. Whitmer is creating a federal PAC, called “Fight Like Hell,” to boost Biden and congressional candidates next year, offering her a platform for a visible role in the 2024 campaign and a foothold to mount a presidential bid in 2028.
Which is not as soon as some of her admirers would like. Democrats in Michigan’s congressional delegation have pleaded with Whitmer to run, I’m told by officials familiar with the conversations, and the lawmakers have themselves been nudged by colleagues from other states to push her. Notably, that roster of congressional Democrats from other states eager for a Whitmer bid included members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
These backstage conversations have taken place as Biden’s approval ratings show little sign of improvement and increasingly appear impervious to external events, for good or ill. Of course, Democrats are betting that the most significant external event of all — Republicans renominating a candidate with more baggage than O’Hare at Thanksgiving — will tip the election again to Biden.
Yet even their assumedly strong odds in such a rematch have not soothed Democrats.
Spending time on this car-free Great Lakes summer idyll, where much of Michigan’s political class heads each June to plot and gossip over local whitefish, fudge and IPAs, is to be reminded of a pattern I’ve noticed since the midterms: the Biden gap. The further up a Democrat is on the political food chain, the more publicly supportive and even defensive they are of the president. The closer a Democrat is to the grassroots, though, the more they sound like many of their own voters in openly pining for another nominee.
So whether it was Whitmer, other statewide officials or legislative leaders, each offered emphatic praise for Biden.
“There’s a distinction between waiting your turn and supporting leadership that you appreciate,” Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist told me, pushing back on the suggestion that Whitmer was being deferential to a relatively unpopular, octogenarian president.
Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson went even further contorting herself, making an impassioned case for diverse representation until I pointed out that Biden was not exactly an avatar of the new face of America. “But his Cabinet,” Benson began, before citing her friendship with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. These defenses of Biden are understandable: Michigan leaders want to remain close to the White House, some of them are truly fond of Biden and none want to be responsible for doing anything that can be perceived as undermining the incumbent in the face of Donald Trump’s return.
Yet to speak to others on the island, those who maybe have not been in the motorcade for a presidential visit and are not overly conscious of future statewide primaries, is to elicit much more direct answers.
“I think it’s time for Joe to move on,” Livonia Mayor Maureen Brosnan told me, adding that she thought Whitmer would “be a great president.”
Jen Eyer, an Ann Arbor city councilor, put it this way: “’That woman from Michigan’ would be amazing against Trump.”
Eyer was alluding to Trump’s insult of Whitmer at the height of the pandemic, which the governor embraced as a badge of honor.
It’s partly why, in Michigan especially, Biden’s decision to run again is so poignant.
It was in Detroit — the night before he won the Michigan primary, effectively claiming the Democratic nomination as Covid arrived on America’s shores — where Biden memorably vowed to be “a bridge” to the next generation of Democrats.
Among those standing behind him on stage as he made that pledge were his future vice president and the woman many high-level Democrats were hoping he’d make his future vice president: Whitmer.
In the more than three years since that night, the governor has helped Biden win Michigan, claimed her own reelection by double-digits, flipped the state Legislature and pocketed a raft of progressive accomplishments in a state Democrats lost in 2016. The years since have, well, not gone as well for Kamala Harris.
But it’s Harris who’s vice president, a near-lock to be on the ticket again next year and who could, by virtue of her office, ultimately block Whitmer from the nomination.
That’s much to the chagrin of many of those same Democrats who were pushing Whitmer-for-vice president in 2020 and think her moment to run for president may be next year. After all, by 2028, she may face not only Harris but contemporaries like California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Democrats just elected governor last year, such as Maryland’s Wes Moore, Pennsylvania’s Josh Shapiro and Maura Healey of Massachusetts.
If Whitmer is bitter about being passed over for vice president or Biden attempting to hold the presidency into his mid-80s, she’s hiding it pretty well.
“I feel really lucky to be here, I really do,” she told me, “not just because we’re literally in maybe the best place you can sit in the United States of America.”
She’s right about the view — there may not be a better state-owned property in the country than the Michigan governor’s summer residence.
And Whitmer is one of the few potential presidential candidates I’ve covered whose insistence about loving her current job is at least plausible.
When I was pressing her whether she’d be disappointed to miss her best opening to run for president, she dismissed my question. I pointed out that she didn’t seem like she was in the Bill Clinton mold of eyeing the White House from before adolescence.
“Like I was born to run, no,” she interjected.
What was less plausible were her claims about not even expecting to be governor.
Her parents may have hailed from different parties, but Whitmer was born into Michigan political royalty.
Her mom, the Democrat, was an assistant attorney general for the state’s long-serving attorney general (Frank Kelley held the post for so many years he became known as the “eternal general”) and her dad, the Republican, served as state commerce secretary before running Blue Cross Blue Shield in Michigan.
Whitmer attended Michigan State for undergraduate and law school, an important political credential for those here who believe the East Lansing institution is the flagship university for actual Michigan residents.
She won a seat in the Michigan House before she turned 30.
Now she’s governor of the only state she’s ever lived in, a thoroughly rooted politician in an era of fading regionalism with the Midwestern Nice style along with that accent.
“One of the best things about Michiganders is we’re humble, but that humility sometimes doesn’t work in our favor when we’re telling our story about how great the opportunity is here,” Whitmer told me.
I don’t buy it.
Whitmer has honed her Michigan Miracle pitch about the state’s unemployment rate dropping below 4 percent for only the third time since the 1970s — two of those times on her watch. .
What’s more, she has a ready-made case for people and businesses ready to leave the pricey coasts but uneasy about Red America.
“One of the things that we boast is that every person is protected and respected under the law in Michigan,” says Whitmer, pointing to abortion rights and gay rights. “That’s not true in Texas.”
What I wonder is how much of her political reluctance owes less to Midwestern restraint and more to a lack of a male ego, something she invited with her Beto-adjacent “born to run” dismissal.
She will only tiptoe there, by praising other women governors — she has hosted a group of them on Mackinac — and calling them all doers. “They don’t get out there and grandstand, they get shit done,” Whitmer says.
They also, I can’t help but note, don’t run for president while nothing seems to stop a succession of male governors every four years, no matter how remote their prospects.
This prompts another chuckle. “A lot of dudes who were just born think they should [run],” Whitmer says.
One of Whitmer’s fellow female governors is more candid, though.
“It is sort of an outrageous situation, with all due respect to all the men in the Republican primary now and all the men in the Democratic primary in 2020,” New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham told me. “The notion that men will just do it and women have to be asked.”
As I point out the Dakotas dynamic — South Dakota’s Republican Gov. Kristi Noem prepared for years to pursue the White House but then decided against it while North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum up and decided to run so he did — Lujan Grisham doesn’t even wait for me to finish the thought.
“Men know this leads to other powerful positions!” she says about the downpayment of running for president.
Lujan Grisham is a strong Biden supporter, but says 2028 “has to be” the year her party turns to a woman. “That’s going to be a real challenge for men,” she says,” because the country is going to say: Where are the women?”
It was a question I was asking myself the weekend after Mackinac, when I was in Des Moines for the annual barbecue and motorcycle ride hosted by Senator Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), which becomes a GOP candidate forum this close to the state’s presidential caucuses. It was jarring to see Ernst and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speak at the outset before turning the program over to a series of mostly male presidential contestants, some of whom lacked the governing experience and most of whom lacked the appeal of the opening acts.
For the moment, though, Whitmer is pushing to complete her Michigan story, one she knows won’t be fully successful without addressing the twin challenges of her time: retaining her state’s auto advantage in the transition to electric vehicles and reversing its population decline.
She used the chamber gathering here to unveil a dedicated “chief growth officer” — a Detroiter so dedicated to Michigan she has both peninsulas tattooed on her forearm — and a bipartisan commission tasked with addressing the state’s population loss.
The Republican co-chair of the commission is a longtime donor and Romney family retainer, John Rakolta, who made his peace with Donald Trump in 2016 and got rewarded with the ambassadorship to the UAE.
Yet as Rakolta made his way to the ballroom for Whitmer’s keynote speech, he seemed to have entered what Coach Izzo calls the KMA stage of life.
I asked him about Whitmer and 2024, and he quickly noted that she’s the future at a time both parties seem intent on tying themselves to the past.
“It’s the same with us,” said Rakolta, alluding to the looming presidential rematch. “Why would you look backward?”
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