One of the hard and often underreported truths of American politics is the role that both luck and timing play in the perceived successes and/or failures of elected officials – particularly chief executives. Enter office at just the right moment – when, say, the economy is humming along and one’s political party enjoys a large majority – and elected office can be a lot of fun. Chances are you’ll have strong approval ratings, considerable clout in legislative decision making, lots of invitations to speak to large and friendly audiences and an opportunity to leave a significant imprint on your city, state or nation.
For a classic example of such a rosy scenario, witness the final two terms served by North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt from 1993-2001. During his second pair of terms (he also served from 1977-1985) Hunt enjoyed Democratic control of both houses of the General Assembly (except for a two-year period in which Republicans controlled the House), a mostly healthy and growing economy, solid popularity ratings and some real chances to make a positive difference in state policy. Add to this Hunt’s own generally sunny and optimistic personality and formidable skills in working with progressives and conservatives – not to mention the less-divided nature of the times – and the picture gets that much brighter.
For the flipside to the cheerful Hunt setup, consider the presidency of Barack Obama. The nation’s first president of color (a daunting reality in and of itself) entered office in the depths of the worst economic crisis in 75 years. Add to this the fact that he never really enjoyed real, working majorities in either house of Congress (except for a brief period at the very outset of his presidency) and that he had to preside over a divided nation while being ceaselessly pummeled by a multi-billion dollar propaganda machine on a daily basis, and it’s a wonder he was able to serve the full eight years. That he actually left office with high public opinion ratings is a testament to his uncommon character, integrity and tenacity.
In 2017, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper can be forgiven if he sometimes finds himself longingly contemplating the environment in which Hunt served, while also feeling enormous kinship with President Obama. Think, for a moment, about what he is and has been up against.
Cooper entered office 80 days ago under enormously difficult circumstances. First, was the matter of his own narrow electoral victory. Though he never relinquished the lead of several thousand votes that allowed him to claim victory on election night, it took him more than a month to be formally declared the victor by elections officials after a series of delaying actions by Pat McCrory. This, in turn, allowed Cooper an extremely narrow window of just over three weeks in which to effect a transition of power – a period during which lawmakers called themselves back into an unprecedented special session to pass laws undermining the powers and authority of the governor’s office and in which McCrory did little, if anything, to help.
Next, is the unprecedented national political environment in the era of Trump. At the same moment that Cooper has been trying to secure the reins of power in Raleigh, the nation has been rocked by repeated political earthquakes spurred by a corrupt, dishonest and quite possibly illegitimate administration in Washington. Add to this the fact that many of the highest profile policy proposals emanating from that administration would fundamentally and negatively alter the relationship between states and the federal government (all while undermining North Carolina’s fiscal policy wellbeing) and the situation becomes all the more vexing and challenging.
And then there’s the economic situation that Cooper has inherited. It’s not the unrelenting horror show that greeted Obama, but it could be a lot better. While things are in decent shape in some urban and suburban areas, the latest numbers show that, on the whole, North Carolina has not participated nearly as fully in the national recovery as it might have. As the N.C. Budget and Tax Center noted just last Friday :
“The first economic reading for 2017 shows an alarming number of areas across North Carolina either moving in the wrong direction or not making solid progress. Most communities still have more people looking for work than before the Great Recession, and several counties that clawed their way back to pre-recession employment levels have lost ground.”
The economic situation is made all the worse by the stain of HB2, which continues to tarnish the state’s “brand” and send a loud and clear message to modern corporate leaders, professionals and academics that North Carolina is a place to be avoided.
And, of course, we haven’t even addressed Cooper’s greatest challenge – namely, an unremittingly hostile legislature led by lawmakers, particularly in the Senate, who revel in doing their utmost to channel and replicate Trump’s bullying bravado, all while operating behind the shield of veto-proof majorities. Not only are these legislators attacking Cooper over policy matters; they’re firing constant personal broadsides and aggressively pushing the constitutional envelope in order to pilfer and diminish his powers.
Add to all of this a hostile and well-funded bevy of right-wing think tanks that know few bounds and that emit a steady barrage of personal attacks, and it’s impressive that Cooper still gets up and comes to work each day. Recently, the reactionary Pope-Civitas Institute absurdly accused Cooper of “playing the race card”  when he argued that putting LGBTQ protections up for a popular vote would equate to putting the civil rights protections of the 1960’s on the ballot.
In such a toxic environment, the instinct to find any small sliver of “compromise” or, at the very least, a chance to avoid conflict for a few hours is understandably attractive. For Cooper – a politician who spent many years as a legislator getting things done – it must be especially difficult to operate in the current environment. At last Monday’s State of the State speech, he used the phrase “common ground” no less than 13 times as he sought to extend an olive branch and find at least some areas of agreement with Republican lawmakers.
Unfortunately, if not unsurprisingly, Cooper’s offer was met with a rude slap to the face. Senator Phil Berger, the legislature’s de facto leader, responded to Cooper’s speech even before he delivered it with a pre-recorded barrage of attacks in which, as Chris Fitzsimon noted last Thursday , he claimed “that 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.’”
So, what can and should Cooper do? Give up on most issues in order to win a few crumbs here and there? Follow Pat McCrory’s lead and become the legislature’s errand/whipping boy? Pack it in and stand aside as Dan Forest sweeps into office in 2020?
In a point-counterpoint discussion she and I did on WUNC radio last week , Becki Gray of the John Locke Foundation indicated that Berger was understandably grumpy because Cooper hadn’t been sufficiently complimentary of the supposed “successes” achieved by conservative lawmakers in recent years. Must Cooper look for ways to praise Berger in order to win his favor?
Here’s another suggestion: Cooper should continue to fight like heck. As was explained in this space last November , the painful truth of modern day North Carolina politics is that leaders on the Right are in no mood to compromise. They are on the attack at all times and will, whatever the content of their public pronouncements, treat gentle efforts at compromise from progressives as a sign of weakness and, whenever possible, an opportunity to pull back the proverbial goalposts further still.
None of this is to imply that Governor Cooper should not attempt to govern or find common ground. It is to say, however, that, wish as he and we might that things were different and more like they were in the 1990’s, they aren’t. In 2017 North Carolina, a progressive governor will only wrest victories away from his opponents on the Right – even small ones – by doing just that: wresting them. For now, the days of common ground policy achievements born of good will and patient dialogue are over.
In other words, in 2017 North Carolina, being a progressive governor is a difficult and sometimes nasty job, but somebody’s gotta’ do it.