Mistaking policy debates for personal attacks

Mistaking policy debates for personal attacks

- in Weekly Briefing

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The Governor is misreading his critics and missing a real opportunity to lead

This is a fascinating time in the governorship of Pat McCrory and in North Carolina public policy debates, generally. The heat of a spring and summer filled with national attention-grabbing legislation and passionate protests has cooled somewhat. State legislators will not return to Raleigh in earnest until May and, for now, the Governor occupies the stage with enormous latitude to dominate the discussion and stamp his imprint on state policy.

If ever there was a time for McCrory to bust out of the shadow cast by ambitious legislative leaders (and even his own budget director) and to work some of the political magic he displayed during 14 years as the mostly popular mayor of the state’s largest city, now would seem like the perfect time to start. Indeed, in a state full of weary citizens sick to death of political conflict, it probably wouldn’t even take that much of an olive branch to win large numbers of disaffected and skeptical people over.

Prickly and paranoid

Sadly, however, the Governor seems to have no interest in charting such a course. A few weeks ago, the state caught brief glimpses of a character we might call Pleasant and Pragmatic Pat – a man who was deeply concerned about the welfare of animals and admitted that school teachers had some legitimate gripes about their treatment. In recent days, however, the character we came to know so well during most of 2013 – someone more accurately described as Prickly and Paranoid Pat – has returned with a vengeance.

If you think this is an overstatement, check out two remarkable interviews that the Governor gave to Charlotte news outlets in recent days.

The first, as Sarah Ovaska and I highlighted here and here on The Progressive Pulse, was to WFAE radio. That, of course, was the interview in which the Governor made the startling (and absurd) assertion that the state did not take away unemployment benefits from the unemployed and in which he, remarkably and combatively, dismissed the whole bizarre episode surrounding his delivery of cookies to pro-choice protesters by saying: “I don’t care, I felt like doing it. Who cares?”

But an even more remarkable interview was chronicled this past Sunday in the Charlotte Observer by editorial page editor Taylor Batten.

To read Batten – someone who actually supported McCrory’s candidacy and helped guide his newspaper to endorse him – the governor displayed a brand of behavior over the course of a lengthy interview that can only be described as, well, perplexing and startlingly small. This is from Batten’s story:

My hour-and-40-minute one-on-one with the governor began with him complaining about an editorial cartoon and ended with a complaint about how Art Pope, one of his chief advisers, is depicted. In between, McCrory repeatedly sprinkled asides and bromides about how the media are out to get him and his administration. When I sat next to him at a recent breakfast, he tugged on my sleeve every couple of minutes, leaned over and murmured his displeasure with this cartoon or that editorial or a news story from six months ago.

It’s not that he has no grounds for complaint – in the mountains of coverage about him, there are bound to be elements that he and his supporters find unfair. What is remarkable is that after 24 years in public life, McCrory fills a role that inevitably will elicit ongoing criticism yet he is as sensitive to it – no, personally hurt by it – as someone entering public life for the first time….

There’s much more he sees, but you get the idea. Most of McCrory’s troubles stem, in his mind, not from his support of policies that a majority of North Carolinians disagree with but from a media that, through bias or incompetency, just can’t understand his greatness.”

The Governor even made yet another inaccurate claim about unemployment insurance – a claim his staff forced him to call back Batten about later and retract. Mind you, this was on the matter of a fundamental policy change he had approved more than nine months ago and on which he had previously been forced to issue retractions and clarifications.

All, in all, it is a remarkable account that Batten provides. At an important moment still quite early in his term in which he has every opportunity in the world to unearth some common ground, articulate and make a strong case for his policies and help heal some of the state’s rifts, all the Governor could do in the course of a lengthy sit-down with a friendly and important journalist was to complain incessantly that people are out to get him and, yet again, get his facts wrong.

Who is advising and briefing this man? Even from just a purely cynical and pragmatic standpoint, such behavior makes zero sense. Veteran political operative Gary Pearce noted as much in this recent post, which also highlighted several other attempts by McCrory’s administration to attack and stifle critics.

Misreading his critics

The sad irony of all of this is that McCrory really is wrong about most of his critics. They’re not out to get him. Most of them simply want some semblance of the man that so many North Carolinians thought they had elected.

It’s hard to remember, but it was only just over a year ago that thousands of North Carolinians displayed “Obama for President” and “McCrory for Governor” signs in the same yards. It may seem unbelievable now, but it really was the case that huge numbers of voters viewed McCrory as a middle-of-the-roader; a moderate reformer who might well bridge the gap (or, at least, broker some compromises) between conservatives and progressives.

Even amongst liberal advocates and analysts; there was some hope that McCrory would temper the ultra-conservative wing of his own party and that, when one got down to brass tacks, he could be a pretty reasonable guy.

As I wrote in this space this past January after having watched his inaugural speech:

[I]t’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).”

The bottom line

Put simply, no one’s expecting the Governor to turn into a Chris Christie south (even though he intimated that he might at times during their joint appearances during the campaign). But they also have a right to expect he won’t become the Richard Nixon of 1962 either – railing wildly and incoherently against real and imagined opponents.

Moreover, all North Carolinians have a right to expect that he will be truthful, informed and, at the least, someone who will engage in genuine dialogue over the substance of the issues and causes he’s advancing. They also have the right to expect that a professional politician will understand that the act of reminding him of this regularly does not amount to some sort of character assassination. Until the Governor learns (or relearns) these rudimentary rules of politics and policymaking, the very rocky political road he’s been traversing seems quite likely to stay that way.