What he got right, what he got wrong and what was missing
Inaugural speeches for North Carolina governors have rarely been particularly momentous affairs down through the years and this past Saturday’s event was no exception. The scuttlebutt amongst observers was that the event had been moved up to 11:00 a.m. in order to avoid a potential TV conflict with the NC State/Duke men’s basketball game at noon.
Even this step and the globally warm weather, however, did little to bring out much of a crowd. Save for some hardcore political loyalists and the friends and families of the Council of State members and other officials who filled a crowded podium, it really didn’t look like more than a handful of North Carolinians had been inspired to attend. From my vantage point on a TV news platform where I was dispensing pearls of wisdom as the designated liberal commentator, I could see huge swaths of empty seats in the audience – perhaps 25% of the total. Standing observers seemed to be limited to law enforcement and media. A block away from the Capitol Building, downtown traffic hummed along as if it was just a run-of-the-mill Saturday morning.
And still, Saturday was not an unimportant day. Not only were the members of our new Council of State publicly installed in their offices for the next four years, but North Carolina’s new Governor spoke directly to the people for the first time in his new role. For fifteen minutes or so, Pat McCrory spelled out his vision for the next four years (or at least a partial representation of it). Whatever you think of the man, his campaign or the people who put him in office, the talk was probably worth watching and listening to—if only so we’ll know something about what to expect.
Here are some of the highlights, lowlights and missing lights of his inaugural speech:
First, the good news
Pat McCrory has many limitations as a politician. He is clearly not an especially deep thinker or a stirring speaker; his knowledge of the state government that he now heads is sometimes shockingly shallow; and he is undoubtedly guilty of shameless pandering to right-wing extremists with whom he has historically held little in common. Word from insiders also holds that he can be a bit of a hothead at times who is quick to lose his cool.
And yet, it’s undeniable that McCrory can be a compelling figure. He doesn’t come across as a man “on the make” who’s looking to line his own pockets and he’s shown genuine graciousness at times toward Governor Perdue when other members of his own party were acting like asses. For an ambitious politician, he frequently displays a refreshing penchant for self-deprecation that can seem reasonably sincere and much of his tenure as Charlotte mayor was marked by a willingness to compromise and actually invest in the public good. Thankfully, he also doesn’t wear his religion on his sleeve or exude the kind of frightening and mystifying fanaticism that one finds among many conservatives like his Lt. Governor. He also comes off as an optimist.
All of these aspects of the Governor’s personality were on display on Saturday. His speech was classic business-Republican talk that could have come from Gerald Ford or Bob Dole. There was no hate-talk or rhetoric about advancing the far right social agenda. He said that public service was “an honorable profession,” talked a lot about “Main Street” and even offered a brief tribute to anti-segregation sit-ins of the 1960’s (a note that undoubtedly left some in the conservative crowd shifting awkwardly in their seats).
What he got wrong
There were, however, lots of important things not to like about the speech. Notwithstanding his generally optimistic tone and tacit admission that intentional and concerted public action is necessary to solve societal problems, he rejected the obvious implications of this premise. He literally called for no new public investments in, well, anything. The only substantive things that the brother of a career public school teacher had to say about state government’s most important public function was that the state:
a) Must focus on “technology” in education (which apparently means providing kids better access to the Internet): “By embracing and employing new technologies, we can connect our students with the best teachers and professors and the best information throughout North Carolina and around the world. There is no limit to what every student in North Carolina can learn and achieve. And this leads to more efficiency as well, which will save our state money,” and
b) Promote his idea for expanding high school vocational education programs: “In our high schools, two-year, and four-year schools, we will provide unlimited opportunity and multiple pathways to success through vocational and professional development.”
How’s that for some big, outside-the-box thinking?
McCrory also swung and missed in some other critical areas. Despite the fact that state taxes as a percentage of total personal income have been falling for years and are now back at 1970’s levels, the Governor could only muster one lame right-wing platitude on the critical question of fiscal policy:
“Government cannot solve all these problems alone because there is no new money falling out of the sky. Like struggling families across our state, government has to live within its means. We should not ask for more money from you, because the result is more pain to families and small businesses on Main Street.”
And then there was a worrisome allusion to another favored right-wing talking point — namely that we must “compete” with states like South Carolina by cutting “burdensome taxes, rules and regulations” even though corporate leaders rank such matters near the bottom on survey after survey of the most important business-climate factors.
What was missing in action
While it’s obviously impossible for a Governor to provide an exhaustive list of all that needs addressing in a state of nine-million souls in a quarter-hour speech, there were still a number of glaring and inexcusable omissions in McCrory’s speech. Here are just a few things that received nary a single mention:
- Poverty – This one seems especially egregious. Notwithstanding the fact that more than one-in-six North Carolinians lives in poverty (and more than 700,000 in “deep poverty”) the word never passed the Governor’s lips.
- Mental health – The state’s mental health system remains scandalously flawed and in desperate need of attention and yet the subject didn’t make it into the speech.
- Health care reform – With a huge percentage of the state still uninsured, an historic federal reform law about to take effect and important state implementation legislation badly needed, the topic simply never came up.
Also remarkably absent: any reference to children, our desperately fragile natural environment, the criminal justice system, or the most shocking and traumatic crime to impact our country since September 11, 2001 – the recent Newtown tragedy.
So what do we make of all this? Where does the Governor go from here? Is there any cause for hope?
As noted in several posts on NC Policy Watch in recent weeks, there has certainly been a number of troubling developments right out of the box. Whether it’s the amazing and ethically-challenged decision to tab the state’s chief right-wing campaign funder, Art Pope, as the administration’s head budget-writer, the almost laughable inclusion of a failed schools superintendent with virtually no experience in North Carolina as Transportation Secretary, or the tone-deaf decision to bestow big pay raises on the Governor’s new cabinet secretaries, the new administration has already had its share of flubs.
Ultimately, though the proof will be in the pudding. Governor McCrory can still govern like a moderate and pragmatic Gerald Ford-Bob Dole Republican, but it will take some guts (and some positive action) to anger his far right supporters by doing so. Saturday’s inaugural speech provided hints, but only hints about what is to come and whether this is actually possible.