David Frum

10.24.12

Tea Partying With Crony Capitalism

There's a charming conceit abroad that Tea Party Republicanism expresses some kind of revulsion against crony capitalism and lobbyist government. There's not much evidence in favor of this proposition - not at least if we judge people by actions rather than words. On the other side of the ledger, there's the story of Michigan's Proposal 6, a proposal put on the ballot by a billionaire monopolist in hope of retaining his monopoly.

Manuel (Matty) Moroun, an 85-year-old self-made billionaire who owns the 83-year-old Ambassador Bridge, is Cynic-in-Chief. The Ambassador is currently the only transport truck-bearing bridge in town. Twenty-five percent of Canadian-American trade, representing about $120-billion, flows across it each year.

It is a perfect monopoly for the Moroun family, a golden goose that just keeps on laying eggs, putting upwards of $80-million a year in tolls, duty free gas and shopping sales in their pockets. Allowing a Canadian-financed competitor into the ring without a fight isn’t an option.

For months, Michiganders have been fed a robust diet of Moroun-family-financed television commercials urging them to vote “yes” to Proposal 6 on Nov. 6. Proposal 6 is a statewide ballot initiative that, if successful, would see Michigan’s state constitution amended and make any new “international bridges” subject to the approval of a majority of Michigan voters.

The Morouns have reportedly spent over $10-million to thwart the free bridge, an effort highlighted by door-to-door flier campaigns, robocalls and their ubiquitous television spots featuring a soundtrack of ominous-sounding piano chords and a series of plain-talking Michigan folk — retired cops, stay-at-home-moms, nurses aides and longtime Detroit residents — striking apocalyptic notes about a paid-for-by-Canada border crossing.

“There is no such thing as a free bridge,” one woman says.

“Eventually, we the people are going to end up paying for it,” warns a Vietnam veteran with an American flag on the back of his motorcycle.

The ad is flatly and brazenly untrue. All the economic risk of the bridge has been assumed by the government of Canada.

But if money cannot buy itself its own facts, what good is money?

And look who Maroun has mobilized in support of his monopoly: the local chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the main Tea Party group in the state.

Sean Higgins in the Washington Examiner writes:

AFP is also taking the same position as Moroun on Proposal 6. AFP argues the bridge project could be a burden on taxpayers.

Moroun is widely suspected of underwriting AFP. Scott Hagerstrom, state director of the group, declined to tell me whether Moroun was financially backing AFP or the Michigan Alliance for Prosperity, a separate nonprofit group also involved in the initiative with ties to AFP. He told me his group won't reveal its backers until after the election. He did insist that there is "no quid pro quo" involved in AFP's backing Proposal 6 …

The word "could" has to do wide duty here. And now look who else has thrown his support to Maroun: Grover Norquist, the Washington anti-tax-crusader (and - although it's considered impolite to mention this - sometime lobbyist).

From the Detroit Free Press, Oct. 3:

Anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist has joined ranks with Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun in urging passage of Proposal 6 on the November ballot.

Norquist, CEO and founder of the anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform, will join Mickey Blashfield, a top Moroun aide and head of the People Should Decide group backing Proposal 6, in a call-in news conference Thursday morning to urge passage of Proposal 6.

Here's Norquist's statement:

It is imperative that any discussion of such a massive government-sponsored project should give taxpayers a final say. A yes vote on Proposal 6 ensures that federal and state lawmakers must make the case to voters that any new bridge to Canada is in Michigan’s best interest. Unfortunately, it appears that many Michigan politicians hope to rush this project through with little public input. The current arguments for a new government subsidized bridge are insufficient.

This project relies on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal spending. While proponents may claim that no state taxpayer dollars will be used, they conveniently ignore that Michigan residents are United States citizens who pay federal taxes. These dollars come out of their pocketbooks. And borrowing money from Canada means that money must be paid back – with interest. Most studies show that Michigan’s indebtedness to Canada will continue for decades, meaning the state will realize no revenue from tolls for years and years to come – if at all.

A new bridge funded with a mix of federal government spending and state government borrowing is certainly a dubious proposition. But not even giving state voters the opportunity to weigh in on the issue is unacceptable. I fully support Proposal 6, which would give Michigan voters a say on this multi-billion dollar project.

Whether or not you find that argument convincing may depend heavily on whether you are receiving a check from Matty Maroun. But the flow of deceptive advertising suggesting that a second bridge will raise Michigan taxes is having its impact on the Michigan voter:

Polls show voter support for Proposal 6 at about 50%, down from 57% a few months ago.

Remember Proposal 6 the next time you hear a Tea Party supporter bemoan "crony capitalism." Turns out, it all depends on the meaning of the word "crony."