MI Republicans Land, Then Pigeonhole, Presidential Debate

If you're a resident of Michigan, or any Great Lakes state for that matter, you gotta be amped that the Michigan Republican Party recently announced it will sponsor a debate for their party's presidential candidates on October 9 in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn. These guys have basically ignored the plight of Middle America for years. Now they're coming to ground zero of the Rust Belt to help decide who's best suited to lead the nation into the Digital Age.

The debate, cosponsored by the Wall Street Journal and CNBC, represents a tremendous opportunity for state residents and civic leaders from around the region to probe which candidate is best prepared to respond to the historic economic, technological, environmental, social, and political trends reshaping America's Heartland.

As state party chairman Saul Anuzis puts it in his YouTube video announcing the news, "Michigan is going to be the center of attention for the next couple of months."

The question is what are these guys going to talk about? What issues will party leaders choose to elevate to national attention? Will the forum come off as a thoughtful discussion about what action the Upper Midwest really needs to take to get its groove back in the modern era? Or a superficial conversation about how Michigan can prosper again if we just fix NAFTA?

Will the candidates bring fresh ideas for leveraging globally unique regional assets like unmatched research universities and Great Lakes to reverse decades of decline?

Or will they brownnose the party loyalists with the increasingly tired and empty rhetoric about tax cuts and 9/11?

Will they seize on the power of inclusiveness and openness to new people and ideas as a way to rekindle a dormant entrepreneurial spirit and boost competitiveness in a global economy?

Or will the debate be two hours of pandering to gay haters, abortion foes, and militant gun rights advocates?

Will they talk about innovative strategies to unite business, academia, philanthropy, and government in a common movement to modernize impotent cities, rebuild community, and pursue a 21st century development strategy for the new economy?

Or will they target the gatekeepers for the obsolete economic development ideas of the 20th century and offer ill-fated ways to rescue the old economy?

Chairman Anuzis provides a glimpse of what direction the forum will take in a recent post on the state party blog:

"This debate on economic issues will give Republican presidential candidates a chance to talk about the issue that affects Michigan families most - jobs," Mr. Anuzis writes. "The automotive industry and manufacturing helped create the Middle Class, and this debate will allow voters to hear how the next president of the United States will deal effectively with the one of the most important sectors of our national economy."

There's no denying or even minimizing the significance of the role manufacturing played in regional - and national - growth, prosperity, and security over the past century. Even after years of factory closings and job losses, industry remains a crucial and evolving dimension of the economy. Initiatives to strengthen the sector deserve rigorous debate.

But they shouldn't dominate and headline. This is 2007. And a growing number of the state's brightest minds agree that manufacturing is no longer driving economic growth. The marketplace is undergoing an intense transition away from heavy and dirty industry toward a knowledge economy where design, alternative energy, info tech, and life sciences represent the new frontiers of opportunity. That is where the growth is happening. And that is what Michigan and its bordering swing states must figure out.

Overall, the greater Great Lakes region of the U.S. has yet to articulate a coherent and comprehensive vision and strategy to accelerate the transition to the knowledge economy. That's where leadership is needed. And that's why the GOP debate in metro Detroit later this fall will help reveal which, if any, of the Republicans are best prepared to strenghten Michigan and, by extension, America.