Socialism is already here – down on the farm

The fellow from down east was fed up with his neighbors calling Democrats “socialists.” He fumed, “Some of the people yelling loudest about socialists are the biggest socialists around.”

How’s that?

“They’re farmers, and they get farm subsidies, agriculture programs, crop price supports and, now, payments to farmers hurt by Trump’s tariffs. Isn’t that socialism?”

This man has nothing against farmers – or farm programs. In fact, he used to own a farm.

“I’m all for agriculture,” he said. “I just don’t like hypocrites.”

Critics – on the right and left – agree.

Sign on US 64 in Dare County

The conservative Cato Institute bluntly calls the 2018 Farm Bill “socialism”:

A conservative website called “Downsizing the Federal Government” chimes in:

“It will spend $867 billion over the next decade, thus pushing up government debt and taxes…. At its core is central planning, which is obvious when you consider that the bill is 807 pages of legalese laying out excruciating details on crop prices, acres, yields, and other micromanagement. Furthermore, the bill lines the pockets of wealthy elites (landowners), which is a central feature of socialism in practice around the world.”

“The federal government spends more than $20 billion a year on subsidies for farm businesses. About 39 percent of the nation’s 2.1 million farms receive subsidies, with the lion’s share of the handouts going to the largest producers of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice.

“The government protects farmers against fluctuations in prices, revenues, and yields. It subsidizes their conservation efforts, insurance coverage, marketing, export sales, research, and other activities. Federal aid for crop farmers is deep and comprehensive.”

Then there are the federal payments that President Trump ordered for farmers hurt by his trade war with China. They total $26 billion so far, and Trump tweeted this weekend that another round is coming before Thanksgiving.

“Morning Joe” Scarborough called it “pure socialism.”

Liberals don’t like it any more than conservatives. The liberal Environmental Working Group says:

“Farm bailout payments intended to offset the impacts of President Trump’s trade war have instead flowed to an estimated more than 9,000 ‘city slickers’ who live in the nation’s largest cities.”

The poster boy could be the conservative Democrat-turned-Republican governor of West Virginia, Jim Justice. Justice is said to be the only billionaire in West Virginia. A farming business owned by his family received $125,000 in soybean and corn subsidies, the maximum allowed from Trump’s “replacement money.”

Then there’s the “price support and stabilization program” that governed North Carolina’s tobacco farms for more than 70 years, from the 1930s to 2004.

The Congressional Research Service described the program this way:
“Federal law specified a guaranteed minimum price for leaf tobacco. The price guarantee was achieved by controlling supply. Each tobacco farm was assigned a marketing quota that balanced national production with domestic and export demand. Any tobacco that did not bring at least the guaranteed price was purchased by a ‘price stabilization cooperative’.”

“Guaranteed prices.” “Controlling supply.” “Price stabilization cooperative.”

Sounds like the Soviet Union.

Over the next year, you’ll hear a lot of talk about “socialism” from President Trump and Republicans. They’ve already attacked ideas like Medicare For All, the Green New Deal and wealth taxes.

Just like the farm programs, those ideas would shift money from one group of Americans to another. Just like Social Security and Medicare.

What’s the difference?

One North Carolina politician who’s been involved in farm policy for a long time put it this way: “Most people think: ‘If it benefits me, it’s not socialism’.”

Stakes are high in impeachment hearings

Contrary to what you might read and hear, not all Americans have made up their minds about impeaching President Trump. A poll of battleground states – including North Carolina – suggests that a decisive slice of voters is keeping an open mind until they hear the evidence.

The public hearings on impeachment, which begin this week, could be crucial in shaping their views.

Here’s why. By 52-44 percent, voters in the six states oppose impeaching and removing Trump from office. But, also by 52-44, voters support the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry.

That means about eight percent of voters aren’t convinced Trump did anything wrong, but they want to hear the facts. Then they’ll make up their minds.

That eight percent could decide the presidential election one year from now. Because those same six states could decide the Electoral College. And the same poll found that voters in those states are closely divided on whether to vote for Trump or a Democrat.

The poll was done by The New York Times and Siena College. It interviewed registered voters in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – six states viewed as key to 2020.

In those states, the poll found, the 2020 race is basically a jump ball. Trump trails Joe Biden by an average of two points, is tied with Bernie Sanders and leads Elizabeth Warren by two points. In North Carolina, Trump leads Biden by two and both Warren and Sanders by three.

On impeachment, the results in North Carolina were slightly better for Trump than in the other states. Voters here oppose impeachment and removal from office by 53-43. But they support the House inquiry by 50-45. That’s seven or eight percent who could go either way on impeachment.

One question in the poll touches on a key issue: Were President Trump’s comments and actions related to Ukraine and investigating Joe Biden “typical of what politicians do” or “much worse than that of typical politicians”?

By a narrow 47-43 margin, voters in the six states combined said “typical of politicians.” That’s key to Trump’s defense.
His campaign will go farther. It will try to make Trump’s combative style a plus.

Note this line from the 30-second TV ad the Trump campaign ran during the seventh game of the World Series – at a cost of $250,000:
“He’s no Mr. Nice Guy, but sometimes it takes a Donald Trump to change Washington.”

Democrats will call Trump rude, crude and racist. Trump will counter: “Americans elected me to shake things up, and that’s what I’m doing.”

As the impeachment hearings begin, the swing voters will be watching and asking: Is Trump just shaking things up, or is he abusing the Presidency? Is it politics as usual, or is it out of bounds?

If Democrats make their case, they could mortally wound Trump. If they fail, he could be on the way to reelection.

This is a high-stakes game of power poker. Televised live.

Senator No and Governor Yes

The late Senator Kay Hagan’s one term and two campaigns epitomized the volatility of North Carolina’s Senate races. They also showed how our Senate elections rise and fall with national political tides – and how North Carolinians view the offices of Senator and Governor very differently.

Hagan was an unlikely and unexpected Senate candidate in 2008. A state senator, she was recruited by leading Democrats after better-known prospects declined to take on incumbent Senator Elizabeth Dole.

Kay Hagan

Dole was a formidable challenge. She was a national figure. She served in the Cabinets of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. She ran for President – briefly. She was married to Senator Bob Dole. She beat Erskine Bowles for the Senate seat in 2002. She replaced Jesse Helms, who had been in the Senate for 30 years, and she seemed set to stay there a while herself.

But Hagan won a bruising, expensive campaign. One Democratic group ran ads hinting that Senator Dole was too old. Dole’s campaign ran a last-minute ad suggesting that Hagan didn’t believe in God.

Hard-hitting ads have marked North Carolina’s Senate races since Helms won in 1972. His Congressional Club pioneered direct-mail fundraising and negative ads.

When Thom Tillis beat Hagan in 2014, it was the most expensive – and one of the roughest – races in the country. In 2020, even before what is sure to be a bitter and costly general election, Tillis faces a tough fight in the Republican primary. Carter Wrenn, who ran many of Helms’s campaign, is working for Tillis’s opponent, Garland Tucker.

For all the money and TV ads, North Carolina’s Senate races often track national politics.

Hagan won in a good Democratic year. Barack Obama carried North Carolina in 2008 – the first Democrat to do so since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Democrat Beverly Perdue was elected the state’s first female Governor.

Hagan wasn’t so lucky in 2014. That was Obama’s second mid-term election, and Democrats lost their U.S. Senate majority.

It helps to be on the right side of a landslide.

Helms became North Carolina’s first Republican Senator in the 20th Century thanks to Richard Nixon’s landslide over George McGovern. Helms won his toughest reelection fight, over Governor Jim Hunt in 1984, when Reagan swamped Walter Mondale.

Helms won five Senate races, but since he retired in 2002 his old seat has changed parties in every election – first Dole, then Hagan and now Tillis.

Senator Richard Burr has won his seat three times – in 2004, 2010 and 2016. Each year, he had the national political winds with him. Before Burr, that seat changed hands – and parties – in 1974 (Democrat Robert Morgan), 1980 (Republican John East), 1986 (Democrat Terry Sanford), 1992 (Republican Lauch Faircloth) and 1998 (Democrat John Edwards).

Republicans have won 12 of the 16 Senate races since 1972. But Democrats have won eight of the 12 Governor’s races since 1972. Governor Jim Hunt won four of them.

Why the difference? It’s that voters look at the two offices very differently. We elect Governors to do good things in Raleigh, which favors Democrats. We elect Senators to stop bad things in Washington, which favors Republicans.

Our tendency is to elect Senator No and Governor Yes.

When Kay Hagan won in 2008, Obama’s slogan was “Yes we can.” When she lost in 2014, the mood was more “No we won’t.”

Age wave hits North Carolina politics

A wave of new and young voters has come ashore in North Carolina – and could reshape politics in the state and nation in 2020 and beyond.

Political scientists have long said that millennials – born between 1981 and 1996 – are the biggest and fastest-growing bloc of potential voters. But will they vote?

Well, they did in Raleigh’s municipal elections this month, and they upended the City Council.

In 2020, millennials – bolstered by Gen Z (born after 1996) – could play a decisive role in the race for President and, in North Carolina, races for U.S. Senate, Congress, Governor and the General Assembly.

Polls show these voters are more liberal and more Democratic than older voters. They could take politics in a sharply different direction.

Raleigh: the wave hits

Two long-time Raleigh City Council members, Russ Stephenson and Kay Crowder, were unseated in October by two young, first-time candidates. The winners, Jonathan Melton and Saige Martin, are the first openly gay members ever on Raleigh’s City Council.

Virginia Reed, Melton’s campaign manager, said their strategy was to reshape the electorate: “We knew he couldn’t win if the only people who voted were the people who always voted in municipal elections. We had to turn out new, younger voters.”

Jonathan Melton

Those new voters helped Melton, who was elected city-wide, beat Stephenson by over 3,300 votes. They helped the new mayor, Mary-Ann Baldwin, beat her closest challenger by 3,800-plus votes.

David McLennan, political science professor at Meredith College in Raleigh, said, “When I talked to young people, it was clear they were energized about the City Council races.”

Reed said, “I believe that younger, more diverse people are more likely to vote if they see themselves in the candidates on the ballot.”

The Trump Factor

Reed and McLennan agreed that young voters, in Raleigh and across the county, have been energized by President Trump.

“Under-30s didn’t think their votes mattered,” Reed said. “Then Trump won in 2016.” Young voters’ opposition to Trump contributed to Democratic gains in the Virginia legislature in 2017 and in mid-term elections in North Carolina and across the country in 2018, she said.

This fall’s Meredith Poll found that millennials and Gen Z in North Carolina are more negative about Trump than older voters. Trump’s job approval among all voters was 40-55 negative; with millennials and Gen Z it was 34-59 negative.

McLennan said national polling shows that millennials and Gen Z favor Democratic candidates and Democratic policies by a margin of two-to-one. They favor Medicare For All and gun-safety laws.

What it means for 2020

Millennials and Gen Z have the numbers to significantly impact future elections, McLennan said.

Trump is President because he won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by a total of 80,000 votes. He won North Carolina by 173,000 out of nearly five million votes.

In North Carolina next year, Democrats will target congressional and legislative races in newly redrawn districts in metropolitan areas, where the population of young voters is growing fastest.

Young voters could swing the Democratic presidential primary here March 3 – and help the Democratic candidate in November.

The Meredith Poll found:
• Among all North Carolina voters, Trump leads Joe Biden 38-34, Elizabeth Warren 39-33 and Bernie Sanders 39-33.
• But among millennials and Gen Z, Biden leads Trump 39-28, Warren leads 36-28 and Sanders leads by a whopping 48-26.

Sanders’s lead suggests he’ll have strong support from young voters in North Carolina’s March primary.

Will Democrats whiff their shot at the White House?

A Republican friend of mine was down in the dumps after the 2008 election. Democrats had won the White House, both houses of Congress and, in North Carolina, the U.S. Senate race, the Governor’s office (for the fifth straight election) and both houses of the legislature.

My friend feared for his party’s future. “Don’t worry,” I assured him. “We Democrats will screw it up.”

Sure enough, in 2010, Democrats suffered devastating defeats up and down the ballot.

I’m reminded of that experience today as Democrats celebrate polls showing President Trump’s approval ratings falling and support for his impeachment rising.

There are two big reasons Democrats shouldn’t get too cocky. The first is the economy. The second is the party’s uncertain search for a candidate who can beat Trump.

As James Carville said, it’s always the economy, stupid

Americans are upbeat, if anxious, about the economy. One poll suggests that Americans have more confidence in Trump’s ability to handle the economy than a Democrat’s.

An October 6-8 Internet Economist/YouGov poll of 1,500 people (including 1,241 registered voters) found that:

  • By 61-39, people say the news about the economy is positive.
  • While Trump’s overall approval rating is under water (43-49 negative), his handling of the economy gets a 47-42 positive rating.
  • If Trump is reelected, 33 percent think the economy will get better and 37, worse. That’s not great, but only 29 percent think the economy will get better if a Democrat wins; 39 percent say it will get worse.

Which Democrat can beat Trump?

Last week’s 12-candidate Democratic debate showed how split the party is on a presidential nominee. The big split is between moderates and progressives, and there are divisions over race and age.

Elizabeth Warren’s surge in the polls worries moderate Democrats. In the Economist/YouGov poll, 42 percent of people said Democrats are “too liberal.” Only 34 percent said Republicans are too conservative.

That’s why the moderates on the stage – Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg – targeted Warren. They said Medicare For All would cost too much, take away people’s insurance and scare away swing voters.

Front-runners at last week’s debate

Bernie Sanders might be over his heart attack, but he gave some Democrats a heart attack when he said out loud what Warren wouldn’t say: Taxes will go up to pay for Medicare for All, although he claimed that premiums, co-pays and, thus, total costs would go down.

Klobuchar and Buttigieg clearly think Joe Biden is fading, thanks to his shaky debate performances and the Hunter Biden questions. They calculate that the moderate lane to the nomination is opening up to an alternative. But the Democratic Party’s debate rules kept other moderates – Steve Bullock, Michael Bennett and John Delaney – off the stage.

Then there’s race. Barack Obama won the Presidency twice by turbocharging minority turnout. But neither Kamala Harris nor Cory Booker are winning strong support.

Obama also energized young people. Can a 70-year-old-plus nominee do that? At the other extreme, is America ready for a 37-year-old – and gay – President Pete?

Trump’s at his best one-on-one

Here’s what will likely happen now: The House will impeach Trump. The Senate will acquit him. Trump will claim victory. And he will end up in a head-to-head, WWE-style mudwrestling death match with one Democrat.

It won’t be Trump against “somebody else.” It will be Trump against somebody. He’ll do just what he did against Hillary Clinton in 2016: He won’t try to build up his numbers. He’ll try to tear down his opponent’s.

And Trump is good in that wrestling ring.

The unpredictability of impeachment

Somehow America got through nearly 200 years and impeached only one President: North Carolina’s own Andrew Johnson. Now we’re going through our third presidential impeachment in just 45 years.

We’ve just about normalized impeachment.

Three of the last nine Presidents have faced it – Nixon, Clinton and now Trump. Four more – Reagan, both Bushes and Obama – heard mutterings about it. The other two, Ford and Carter, maybe weren’t in office long enough to be impeached.

What can we learn from the Nixon and Clinton experiences?

Public opinion on impeachment can change fast – and dramatically

Since Democrats took over the U.S. House last November, they’ve fretted that impeaching Trump would backfire on them, like it did on Republicans who impeached Clinton in 1998.

But the polls have shifted. Several recently showed that public support for impeachment has grown.

Nixon leaves the White House

In 1972, Richard Nixon won reelection with one of the biggest landslides in history. Less than two years later, his standing with the public had fallen so far that he didn’t have enough votes in the Senate to be acquitted. Nixon resigned.

(One Senator who stood by Nixon to the end was North Carolina’s Jesse Helms, who had been elected in 1972.)

Public opinion can also swing against impeachment.

When Monicagate broke in 1998, it looked like Clinton would have to resign within days. But he hung on and fought back.

By the time the House voted, public opinion was against impeachment. The Senate acquitted him.

Impeachment will have a huge impact on 2020

In the 1998 mid-terms, Republicans lost big. Newt Gingrich, who bet the House on impeachment, lost his Speakership.

In the 1974 mid-terms, just three months after Nixon left office, Republicans were almost wiped out. And the impact went way beyond Congress.

Take North Carolina. 1972 had been a breakthrough year for Republicans. For the first time in the 20th Century, they won races for Governor and U.S. Senate. They made big gains in the legislature.

After 1974, there were only 10 Republicans left in the 120-member House – and, in the 50-member Senate, just one lonely Republican.

2020 will be different from 1974 and 1998 in one big way. Nixon and Clinton were in their second terms when they were impeached. This time, barring resignation or removal, President Trump will be running for reelection.

The White House and both houses of Congress will be at stake. And the state legislatures elected in 2020 will control congressional and legislative redistricting in 2021. We’ve seen that movie in North Carolina.

Impeachment will have unlikely consequences

After Watergate:

  • North Carolina’s Senator Sam Ervin, who chaired the Senate Watergate investigation, went from being an anti-civil rights Southern segregationist to lovable Uncle Sam, champion of the Constitution.
  • Ervin’s aide Rufus Edmisten was elected Attorney General in 1974 and became a long-term fixture in North Carolina politics.
  • An unknown peanut farmer from Georgia became President. And he’s still building houses.

After Clinton’s impeachment:

  • He left the White House with sky-high ratings in the polls.
  • Vice President Al Gore couldn’t decide whether to embrace or run away from Clinton. He ended up losing the closest presidential race in history.
  • North Carolina elected a political newcomer, John Edwards, to the U.S. Senate. Edwards ran against Washington – and both parties. “The politicians up there spend all their time fighting each other,” he said. “I’ll fight for the people.” He narrowly upset incumbent Lauch Faircloth.

As wild as politics is today, there’s no telling what this impeachment battle will bring.

She left Wall Street to fight gerrymandering here

Mary Wills Bode was on the New York City subway last year when her life jumped tracks.

A chance encounter led her to leave the Wall Street law firm where she was on a partner track. She came home to North Carolina, and now she’s working to end gerrymandering in the state.

Bode celebrates this month’s court ruling that directed the legislature to redraw legislative maps for the 2020 elections. But she said in an interview, “it’s not going to deliver a long-term fix and long-lasting reform.”

Mary Wills Bode

Bode is Executive Director of North Carolinians for Redistricting Reform (NC4RR), founded by Tom Ross, former President of the University of North Carolina system.

NC4RR is pushing for an amendment to the State Constitution that would abolish partisan gerrymandering for good and forever, for all elections.

Bode said the fundamental problem is the power – and abuse – of personal data: “Big data has caused big problems for democracy.”

Gerrymandering isn’t new, in North Carolina or any state. Democrats and Republicans have done it. What’s new is the level of computer-driven granular detail that can be manipulated to slice and dice voters and districts, guaranteeing victory for one party or the other.

Unlike reform proposals that establish an independent redistricting commission, NC4RR would put rules in place regardless of who draws the maps. The rules would:

• Prohibit use of any detailed personal data that could predict voting behavior.
• Require transparency in redistricting.
• Require that districts be “contiguous and compact” and “respect county and geographic lines.”

Bode said that, instead of being the poster child for gerrymandering, “North Carolina can be the example of bipartisan redistricting reform for the rest of the country.

“Our state has a historic opportunity to show that good government can be good politics.”

“I come by my politics honestly,” she said. Her mother, Lucy Hancock Bode, was Deputy Secretary and Secretary of the Department of Human Resources under Governor Jim Hunt. Her father, John, is an attorney and lobbyist in Raleigh. Mary Wills grew up in Raleigh and graduated from Cardinal Gibbons High School in 2006, then went to Wake Forest University and UNC-Chapel Hill Law School.

In New York, she worked in capital markets and leveraged finance at the Wall Street firm Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP and then later at Proskauer Rose LLP.

On the subway one Sunday in July 2018, she and a friend were talking about North Carolina politics. An elderly gentleman overhead them and struck up a conversation.

He turned out to be Franz S. Leichter, a Holocaust survivor who served for 30 years in the New York legislature and was called “the conscience of the Senate.”

He and Bode became friends. A few weeks later, Bode told him she was thinking about coming home and working on redistricting reform. Having been gerrymandered out of his own district three times, he told her, “This is a serious issue for democracy. You have to go back to North Carolina.”

“My definition of success changed,” she said.

Success for NC4RR is achieving comprehensive reform before the next redistricting in 2021. It’s pushing House Bill 140, the FAIR Act – Fairness And Integrity in Redistricting. As a constitutional amendment, the bill needs a three-fifths vote in both the House and Senate. Then it goes to a statewide referendum.

Bode said that requires bipartisanship. So NC4RR has Republicans, Democrats and Independents.

The co-chairs are Ross, a Democrat, and Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican. Members include former legislators Margaret Dickson, a Democrat, and Skip Stam, a Republican; Rhoda Billings, former Chief Justice of the NC Supreme Court; Democratic political consultant Courtney Crowder; Sharon Decker, former NC Secretary of Commerce conservative commentator John Hood; Allen Joines, Mayor of Winston-Salem; Raleigh developer David Meeker; Bob Orr, former Associate Justice of the NC Supreme Court; Vicki Lee Parker, Director of the NC Business Council; Southern Pines publisher David Woronoff and Julian Wright, Charlotte attorney and civic leader.