Brian Dickerson: With mention of China, is bridge debate over?

Detroit Free Press

By Brian Dickerson

At La Scala, an opera isn’t over until the fat lady sings.

In Michigan, no political controversy can be said to have reached its climax until one side or the other asserts that the Chinese are behind the whole thing.

So it’s encouraging — for those of us bored to tears by the protracted debate between Ambassador Bridge magnate Manuel (Matty) Moroun and champions of a second, publicly owned Detroit-Windsor span — that the latest TV salvo against a new bridge invokes the Beijing boogeyman. This is a sure sign that the bridge controversy is at long last drawing to a close, and that the Chinese beachhead that Gov. Rick Snyder and loyal media lapdogs such as myself have been furtively laboring to establish on the banks of the Detroit River is at hand.

Oops! Now I may have said too much.

‘A Bridge Too Far’

If you don’t quite understand the Beijing/bridge connection, not to worry: It’s all laid out in a new TV spot being broadcast in some Michigan cable markets. Sponsored by the Willow Run Tea Party, the ad is being bankrolled by an anonymous donor with an obvious animus toward the proposed second span and $100,000 or so to spare. (Now who in the world could that be?)

Titled “A Bridge (Gone) Too Far,” the ad claims that the Chinese government has funded public works projects in New York, Texas and California, and darkly hints that Snyder’s current trade mission to China is aimed at securing Chinese backing for the New International Trade Crossing (NITC), the Detroit-to-Windsor bridge Snyder and most everyone else whose livelihood is not tethered to Moroun’s Ambassador Bridge want to build about 2 miles downriver.

Willow Run Tea Party founder Dennis Moore told me his organization became suspicious about Beijing’s involvement in NITC when Snyder conceded that the Chinese would be free to bid on contracts to build and/or operate the proposed second span.

“I think the bridge is a quid pro quo that the governor gave to China,” Moore confided in a phone conversation Wednesday.

A quid pro quo for what? I asked him. And what evidence could Moore cite that China had any interest in a Detroit-Windsor bridge?

“I didn’t say I had evidence,” Moore said. “It’s a suspicion.”

It’s been done before

Moore’s group isn’t the first party to savage a political opponent by suggesting that he or she is secretly in league with the Chinese. In her recently published memoir, former Gov. Jennifer Granholm somewhat sheepishly recounts how her campaign played the China card against Dick DeVos, her Republican opponent in the 2006 gubernatorial election, with TV ads suggesting that DeVos had shipped Michigan jobs to China. (“The rational reasons for a business to invest in China were ignored,” Granholm concedes in her book. “Our ads redirected the anger DeVos had turned toward me right back at him.”)

Of course, the fact that people who know better regularly play the China card only makes it more potent in the hands of the sincerely paranoiac. The Willow Run Tea Party, whose Web site bristles of various allegations of Chinese villainy (“Chinese ‘Espianoge [sic] and Conspiracy’ at the University of Michigan”), would seem to fall into the latter category.

There are a couple of things worth pointing out about the Tea Party’s latest China scare ad:

Foremost, of course, is the sheer xenophobic idiocy of the thing; there is simply no evidence that the Chinese are interested in owning or operating a bridge between Detroit and Canada, and no suggestion that the project is on Snyder’s agenda in China.

But what if China (or some other foreign country) was interested in buying bridge bonds, or in supplying components not manufactured here? Would that make the publicly owned bridge a bad idea? Or make it less foolish for North America’s two most important trading partners to be dependent on the sole existing span?

A little sad

It’s ironic, and a little sad, that the anti-bridge camp has been reduced to the same demagogic argument Democrats used to pummel DeVos five years ago. The Ambassador Bridge’s success, after all, is rooted in its owner’s recognition that the free flow of goods, people and investment dollars across international borders is the keystone of U.S. economic prosperity.

Somewhere in my correspondence file there is a handwritten note from Moroun expressing appreciation for a long-ago column I wrote in favor of liberalizing this country’s immigration laws. Moroun, a son of immigrants, is way too smart to believe that any foreign government’s interest in investing in or promoting trade with the U.S. is a sign of this country’s economic weakness.

But that is the desperation to which opponents of the bridge have sunk.

And just wait till they find out that Libya’s fugitive leader Moammar Gadhafi and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad want a piece of the NITC action, too.

But there I go again, talking out of school …