As the 2016 campaign season grinds along the final stretch toward Election Day on Nov. 8 – and with thousands of North Carolinians already having cast their ballots – we may see a familiar paradox of politics once again displayed: Things had to get worse before they could get better.
And brother, did they get worse.
The national Republican Party chose as its nominee for president a man whose appalling lack of qualifications – on the basis of experience, judgment and temperament – has left him trailing in the polls behind a Democratic rival who’s been unable to shake accusations that she can’t be trusted.
Yet Hillary Clinton has weathered Donald Trump’s attacks and sustained a campaign that promises a credible path toward a reinvigorated American greatness. Trump, for all of his “Make America Great Again” bluster, has offered what amounts to a toxic stew of anti-government demagoguery, isolationism, selfishness, hate-mongering and contempt for civil discourse.
Trump’s deficiencies – including his casual boasting of sexual misconduct and, despite his denials, the recent allegations by several women claiming they were targeted – have led many principled conservatives to spurn him and helped position Clinton for what could become a commanding win.
It’s worth cheering that as the first woman president, she would shape an agenda properly sensitive to women’s concerns for economic opportunity, support for families and access to good health care. Not to mention, of course, keeping the country safe.
She could be expected to speak out forcefully in support of social justice in its many aspects. Trump? Well, let’s just say that social justice hasn’t been among his notable priorities during a career built on self-aggrandizement and the stirring up of resentment towards the vulnerable.
Look out below
With the faltering Trump at the top of their ticket, Republican leaders worry about damage to the party’s other candidates. There are reports that campaign spending is being diverted away from what could well be a losing bid for the White House in an effort to salvage GOP majorities in Congress. Control of the Senate in particular is regarded as in play, something that a few months of ago would have been seen as a Democratic pipe dream.
North Carolina’s Sen. Richard Burr, whose run for a third term figures prominently in Republican efforts to hold power, arguably is paying a price for standing with Trump as progressive Democrat Deborah Ross has him entangled in an unexpectedly close race.
Burr is among many GOP candidates to face the dilemma: Distancing themselves from Trump would strengthen their appeal among centrist voters, but it also would alienate Trump’s still-fervent loyalists (the same loyalists who respond to the candidate’s anti-Clinton taunts with shouts of “Lock her up!”).
So the GOP’s Trump misadventure, in exposing a kind of willful rot at the party’s core, could end up boosting a candidate who would help turn the Senate from a den of conservative obstructionism – aimed especially at President Obama – into a chamber that worked productively with a President Clinton.
Getting worse, then getting better. Surely that would describe the arc in North Carolina state politics since the elections of 2012 if those officeholders who went off the deep end to cut taxes on the wealthy, suppress voting rights and demean gays, lesbians and the transgendered are held to account at the polls.
Exhibit A among those who took the plunge would have to be Gov. Pat McCrory, who now seeks a second four-year term.
As an incumbent who was a popular mayor in Charlotte, the state’s largest city, and who has had the presumed benefit of working with Republican majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, McCrory under normal circumstances would have been rated as a heavy re-election favorite. But circumstances haven’t been normal.
The governor essentially has found himself like a rodeo cowboy plopped astride a bucking bull – a legislature in which long-suffering Republicans, by virtue of their 2010 ascent to power and McCrory’s 2012 victory, suddenly were freed to write all manner of conservative dogma into law.
Or free to snub policies that bore the stigma of Democratic support, such as expansion of the state’s Medicaid program at chiefly federal expense. As a result, upwards of 300,000 low-income residents have had to scrounge for their health care via hospital emergency rooms (with costs typically passed along to other patients) or charity clinics, or just have had to do without.
It’s been a heartless and economically nonsensical policy, but if Obama and the Democrats were for it, the legislature was going to be against it. McCrory, whatever he might have preferred to do, held on and rode.
Atop the legislative agenda sat budget decisions that McCrory has had to strain to defend. Income taxes were slashed, costing the state revenues that could have helped it recover from spending cuts forced by the Great Recession. Those cuts mainly helped taxpayers at the top of the income scale. Meanwhile, the sales tax was broadened in ways that hit less-affluent residents the hardest.
Unemployment benefits were slashed to where they became among the nation’s skimpiest. Teacher salaries were allowed to lag toward the bottom of national rankings, and education spending in general failed to keep up with population growth. McCrory might not have liked it, but when the budgets landed on his desk, he signed.
The governor and his allies now tout the pay raises they’ve awarded to teachers in the last couple of budgets. Those raises surely will help sustain the teaching ranks. But they also had the earmarks of a deathbed conversion to ward off further embarrassment over how poorly the state’s teachers, and its public schools generally, have been treated.
Voices of protest
Half-hearted support for public education was a primary grievance raised by the NAACP-led Moral Monday movement that arose in 2013 in opposition to conservative budgets and policies. And even while that nucleus of opposition took shape, Republican legislators were launching efforts to make it harder for people to vote. With a strict voter ID law and other changes such as cutbacks to early voting, the clear intent was to hold down the vote among Democratic-leaning citizens, minorities in particular.
The NAACP and other voting rights advocates fought back with lawsuits. They were vindicated in the federal courts, which is why voters this year don’t have to show photo identification and why early voting began on Oct. 20 (with long lines, it’s worth noting).
Trump and his cohorts warn that the election here and elsewhere may be “rigged,” but history, the laws and common sense show that polling-place fraud hasn’t been and is unlikely to be a significant problem. It wouldn’t be surprising, though, if the long dispute over election rules has the effect this year of encouraging even more voters to show up – especially voters who resent partisan attempts to inconvenience them.
Federal judges also have upheld legal challenges to election district maps drawn to boost Republican candidates. Those gerrymandering efforts – involving congressional, legislative and some county-level districts – have attempted to lock in Republican majorities even at the expense of voters’ constitutional right to have an equal say at the polls. Along with those court rulings, an election in which the GOP faces unexpected difficulty could put the state’s delegation in the U.S. House and its legislative rolls on a more balanced footing.
Better balance between conservatives and progressives might have saved the legislature from its most egregious stumble of recent months – passage of the unnecessary, costly and ill-considered “bathroom bill” that has painted North Carolina as a redoubt of intolerance.
House Bill 2 was the product of a one-day legislative special session called to pin the ears of the Charlotte City Council, which had approved an ordinance entitling transgendered people to use public bathrooms of the gender with which they identify. McCrory signed the bill the same day – and he’s been stuck ever since trying to explain why, even as the state has lost cultural and sporting events and corporate investments.
Supporters defend the law as a public safety measure – a disingenuous claim at best. But the law ranges beyond bathroom protocols to bar local governments from enacting anti-discrimination provisions covering sexual orientation. Since state law lacks such provisions, gays and lesbians who are discriminated against in the workplace or in public accommodations thus can gain no relief through the state courts. No wonder so many people view this as an intolerable affront to civil rights.
If Donald Trump’s presence on the ballot motivates voters to turn out, whether to support or oppose him, then H.B. 2’s presence on the statute books is likely to motivate as well. Among the law’s opponents, McCrory presents a convenient focus for their frustration. Perhaps the governor’s fate will boil down to whether his steady performance following the Hurricane Matthew flood disaster allows him to shed the H.B. 2 millstone he’s been carrying.
Voters disappointed in the governor can turn to his Democratic opponent, Attorney General Roy Cooper, who has been a knowledgeable and articulate critic not only of H.B. 2 but also of voter suppression, tax cutting and a range of other Republican-backed policies.
Cooper’s challenge to McCrory is seen as very close, perhaps a toss-up. But that the race is close at all suggests how badly McCrory and his allies have misjudged public sentiment. And their ongoing support of Trump – even when party leaders such as Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney have said they can’t back him – reflects on them harshly as well.
The view from the Council
Via this channel and others, the Council of Churches comments on these matters because the choices before North Carolina voters bear heavily on issues the Council regards as paramount.
For instance, the Council promotes fair, humane and practical policies toward immigration – policies that seem to be the farthest thing from Donald Trump’s mind.
It promotes fair, humane and practical policies toward gays, lesbians and the transgendered – policies that are totally at odds with H.B. 2.
It promotes ample access to the polls, so that all qualified voters can readily have their say. It promotes a strong public education system. It believes that North Carolina should expand its Medicaid program, and it believes that taxation should not place a disproportionate burden on ordinary families who are the backbone of our communities. Some candidates are in sync with these priorities. Others aren’t.
We encourage all voters, no matter their views, to take advantage of their precious opportunity to go to the polls. That is our birthright as citizens of this democracy, and it is with broad participation that we have the best chance of choosing our elected leaders wisely.
Reasonable people of goodwill may disagree over their candidate preferences. Yet we should be able to agree on common goals: to make the state and nation more prosperous, safer and more equitable. Hopefully, those goals will be furthered if we take care to treat others as we’d like to be treated and choose leaders who take that guideline to heart.