Michigan standoff: Whitmer issues fresh COVID-19 emergency declaration after legislature prepares to sue

Fissures have grown between governors and legislatures over the need to reopen businesses as the COVID-19 shutdowns continue, but perhaps nowhere more than in Michigan. Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer has enraged many of her constituents with broad and arbitrary orders restricting activities with no known vectors to spreading the virus, such as planting in gardens and traveling between one’s own residences. Massive protests have erupted for the past two weeks over those restrictions, and the GOP-controlled legislature called a special session to attempt to curtail Whitmer’s authority.

Yesterday, the legislature authorized a lawsuit to block Whitmer’s extension of the emergency order, arguing that no such provision exists in Michigan law:

As hundreds of protesters descended upon Michigan’s Capitol building on Thursday to demand an end to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s coronavirus lockdown, the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature ramped up its efforts to bring the Democratic governor’s emergency powers to an end.

In a renewed effort to reverse Whitmer’s stringent policies aimed at protecting Michiganders amid the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers voted against extending Whitmer’s emergency powers declaration allowing her to enforce a statewide lockdown.

They further voted in favor of giving House Speaker Lee Chatfield, a Republican, the authority to file a lawsuit against the Democratic governor over her handling of the COVID-19 outbreak.

No problem, Whitmer responded, and just issued a new one instead:

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, a prime political target in partisan clashes over stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus outbreak, signed three executive orders on Thursday to reinstate a state of emergency during the coronavirus pandemic.

Her order came on a day when protesters, some of them armed, gathered at the State Capitol in Lansing to oppose stay-at-home orders. State Senator Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat, shared a photograph of protesters with rifles inside the building, as well as a video of hundreds of people outside.

The governor’s moves, which put into place a new state of emergency through May 28, were in response to the Republican-led State Legislature’s refusal to extend the original emergency declaration on the day it was set to expire.

Earlier, Speaker Lee Chatfield (R) had tried to dial down the partisanship in Michigan by offering, as he put it, “our hand of partnership.” He tweeted out his disappointment that “she just said no,” but it’s possible that both sides were offering one finger, and not so much in partnership:

It’s a good speech, but one can argue that negotiation with Whitmer on shaping the order might have been seen more as a hand of friendship than, er, serving her with a lawsuit. Very few friendships have been formed on the complainant/respondent relationship, or so one would imagine.

This points to a broader political problem. Whitmer probably gained some initial approval in the crisis by acting boldly with executive authority, which is usually an easy choice. In a true crisis situation, people want leadership and safety. However, that seems to have gone to Whitmer’s head, as did her earlier joust with Donald Trump, who has been following that same executive-authority instinct. Had she used that authority wisely and judiciously, Whitmer would have been able to bank political capital by the bucketload and face down the Republican-led legislature. Instead, Whitmer’s capricious and haughty approach to edicts are likely going to create a backlash, if one has not already started.

That matters for Democrats in two ways. First off, Whitmer looked like a perfect running mate for Joe Biden until the protests erupted. She has executive experience, at least had some momentum building, and wasn’t a part of the Beltway culture. Whitmer might have locked in Michigan for Democrats in November. Now, with the state’s joblessness leading the nation and her constituents chafing under her orders and emergency decrees, she’s not only lost value as a Biden running mate — she might actually lose the state for Biden all on her own if this continues for much longer.

Whitmer still has a window to act more judiciously, but her reissue of the emergency order in defiance of both the protesters and the legislature shows she’s not recognizing the potential peril. If Whitmer doesn’t see it, then perhaps other Democrats should start pointing it out. This is precisely the kind of elite-diktat rule that Donald Trump ran successfully against in 2016, and this time around he might be even more successful in a state Democrats can’t afford to lose twice.