Jeff Daniels thought he was all set. After all, he had spoken to the man and made a deal. What could go wrong?

According to a Feb. 17 Detroit Free Press article (Jeff Daniels: Snyder said one thing, did another, 02/17/11), Daniels said that then-candidate and now Republican Gov. Rick Snyder told him during the 2010 campaign that, if he was elected governor, he would not eliminate Michigan’s film incentives.

Daniels — a prominent Michigander and actor who is perhaps still best known for his role opposite Jim Carrey in “Dumb and Dumber” — thought that personal assurance from Snyder would be good enough. Regardless of what Snyder was saying in public, Daniels thought he knew the real truth. He had a gentleman’s agreement, and he expected it would be abided.

So, when Snyder announced plans last week to effectively eliminate the state’s film incentives, Daniels was incensed. He told the Free Press: “It’s not what he told me privately, so to be honest, I guess he’s a politician after all. Say one thing, do another.”

Now, Snyder denies ever telling Daniels anything, and whether or not the film incentives are a good investment is a worthy debate, but one we will not have just now. What I’d like to focus on instead is Daniels’s statement and mindset, and for that purpose, we will assume that Snyder did in fact tell him that he would keep the film incentives.

If that is the case, then Daniels expected that Snyder would honor that private agreement with him, regardless of the duty he owed to the voters at large. For example, Snyder mentioned on several occasions on the campaign trail that the film tax credits cost more than they’re worth and should be reevaluated and perhaps eliminated. Millions of Michiganders heard him express those thoughts, and surely they expected him to follow through on what he said after they elected him by a considerable majority.

But Daniels expected Snyder to ignore all that and follow through on their secret agreement. And because Snyder didn’t do that, Daniels disparagingly called him a calculating politician. Interesting, right?

This isn’t a rebuke of Daniels, but rather a sad commentary on how the minds of most voters work. We all hate special interests; the thought of some rich and powerful guy getting to whisper orders into our leaders’ ears enflames the core of every American. As ideas go, special access and private agreements among politicians are the most un-American things of all.

Daniels knows all this. But, like all of us, he is conveniently blinded when his own issues are involved, and the secret agreement is his own. Much like Republican senators who hate the filibuster, the judicial nominating process and special rules of legislative procedure when they’re in the minority — but love it all in the majority — Daniels is in the unenviable position here of living a double standard.

Snyder is no hero in all this: I would argue that he is failing to live up to his campaign promise to return innovation and jobs to Michigan by short-sightedly eliminating the one fledgling industry that could quickly return business, tourism and enthusiasm to this state. There’s plenty to criticize in his budget plan, but his failure to honor an alleged secret agreement, if one was ever made, must be above rebuke.

Daniels means well, and I happen to agree with him on the film credits, but he has no right to expect private service from a public servant. Be it the evil tobacco lobby or something much more lovable, all special interests serve to short-circuit a democracy. Part of reforming our political system away from a glacial bureaucracy that only some insiders can shape is coming to a realization that there can be no exceptions.

The core of this argument is that, regardless of what we believe about specific issues, we must first ensure the integrity of the governmental systems that we use to bring about our preferred brand of change. It may be perfectly well to support issues like welfare reform, gun rights or easier access to abortions, but we must all understand that an “at all costs/this very instant” approach cannot work. We cannot dismantle the very systems that support our governmental order to affect change. To do so would be to kill the golden goose.

In the end, it all returns to civility, patience and compromise. Yes, that’s the hard way to do things, but who ever said the American way was the easy way?

Imran Syed can be reached at galad@umich.edu.

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