Two different visions for North Carolina were prominently on display this week in Raleigh, both in terms of policy and also in tone, how political leaders work together and how they behave when they disagree.
The occasion was the first State of the State address from Governor Roy Cooper to the General Assembly. Cooper talked about raising teacher pay, making more investments in early childhood programs, reforming the criminal justice reform, and creating jobs.
It was the traditional mainstream and moderate Democratic message, with frequent calls for bipartisan cooperation with the Republican leadership of the legislature.
Cooper used the phrase “common ground” 13 times in his remarks that were interrupted frequently by applause and not just by Democratic legislators. Republicans clapped several times too.
Even when it came to the most divisive issue facing the state, the controversial anti-LGBTQ law HB2, Cooper’s words were measured. He correctly called the law a dark cloud hanging over the state, but said he was willing to sign compromise legislation to repeal it.
The stage seemed set for a rare and refreshing moment in Raleigh, maybe not bipartisan exactly, but certainly less acrimonious in tone than the pitched battle between Cooper and the General Assembly in recent weeks.
Then Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger delivered his prerecorded response for the statewide television audience and the moment disappeared in a blizzard of hyperbolic rhetoric, attacks on the media and complaints about what Berger called vulgar protests against the Republican agenda by people he said were trying to sabotage the state’s economy.
Berger said Cooper squeaked into office and had become the Left’s new champion who was trying to force the state to “retreat to its troubled past.”
The speech felt like more red meat for the Republican political base during a campaign season than a reasonable response to a major policy address by the governor, more Donald Trump rally than thoughtful policy outline.
There’s a good reason for that. Much of Berger’s response to Cooper’s address appears to have come from a speech he gave the weekend before to the GOP convention in his home county of Rockingham.
A story in the Greensboro News & Record about Berger’s appearance there includes many of the same lines that Berger used in responding to Cooper, right down to the complaints about “vulgar rallies and Left wing protests.”
Berger apparently thought it was appropriate to answer Gov. Cooper’s mainstream message and call for cooperation with the same rhetoric and language he delivered to his party’s faithful just two days before.
That’s especially bizarre when you consider what many Republicans have already said about many of Cooper’s ideas. They claim to want to raise teacher pay too, and create jobs, address the opioid epidemic and do more for victims of last fall’s hurricane.
Not much of a radical left agenda there. Berger himself also supports most of what Cooper proposes.
But it didn’t matter. Berger is angry and seems to feel victimized politically even though his party still holds supermajorities in both the House and Senate.
One thing Berger said in Rockingham County that he left out of his remarks in response to Cooper was that he and other Republican leaders were being attacked the same way that President Trump was being treated in Washington.
He didn’t have to make the comparison explicitly. There were many threads of Trump running through Berger’s diatribe, the demonization of the media, the wild complaints about the Left and then this out of context claim near of the end of his remarks.
“Divisiveness and hyper-partisanship have diminished the public’s faith in their elected officials.”
It’s impossible to take that message seriously when the person delivering it brings it up after bitterly attacking a political leader who just called for finding common ground.
But that’s vintage Berger, and his bitter blustering continues to define this troubling era of politics and policy in North Carolina. Governor Cooper has his work cut out for him.