Elect the President by Popular Vote?

From police to portraits, from statues to school buildings, Americans are taking a new look at our racial – and racist – past. One legacy of that past is the Electoral College for electing Presidents.

You may think it takes a constitutional amendment to change that. Not so. An ingenuous workaround is working its way around the country, and North Carolina could become part of it. 

We don’t elect Presidents the way we elect everything else, from City Council to Congress. For President, each state has a number of electoral votes equal to the total of its two Senators and members of Congress – 538 in all. To be President, a candidate has to win enough states to get 270 electoral votes.

You don’t have to win the popular vote. Both George W. Bush (2000) and Donald Trump lost the national popular vote but won the Electoral College. It happened three times in the 19thCentury: 1824 (John Quincy Adams), 1876 (Rutherford B. Hayes) and 1888 (Benjamin Harrison). It could happen again this year.

Because of 2000 and 2016, the issue has become partisan. But reform has support from Republicans, like former National Chair Michael Steele and some state-level officials.

Let’s take off our partisan glasses and look at history.

The Electoral College was a compromise in the Constitution. The Founding Fathers didn’t trust a “democratic mob” to elect a President. Instead, the people would elect wise, sober “electors” to pick the President. Elitism beat out populism.

Slavery came in when it came to deciding how many electors each state would have. Southern states wouldn’t go for assigning electors according to free white residents only. Then the North would dominate. The result was the infamous “three-fifths compromise” that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person. 

Some 40 percent of the people living in the South were slaves. Virginia, where slaves were 60 percent of the population, got 12 electoral votes, more than one-fourth of the 46 required then to win the presidency. 

For 32 of the nation’s first 36 years, a slave-holding Virginian occupied the White House (John Adams from Massachusetts was the exception).

The Civil War ended slavery, but not the Electoral College. The Civil War also changed the nation from a collection of states (“The United States are…”) to an indivisible nation (“The United States is…”)

Still, the Electoral College endures.  

Abolishing it by constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote by Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states. That isn’t going to happen.

A group called National Popular Vote is pushing an interstate compact that would keep the Electoral College but ensure that the winner of the national popular vote becomes President.

How? By getting states with a total of 270 electoral votes to assign their votes to the popular vote winner nationally, not the winner in their states.

To date, states with 196 electoral votes have joined the compact. The bill has been introduced by Democratic legislators in North Carolina (15 electors, maybe 16 soon), but it’s not going anywhere in the Republican legislature.

At its virtual state convention in June, the North Carolina Democratic Party endorsed the idea.

The compact’s supporters argue that Presidential elections aren’t truly national; they’re decided in just six to ten battleground states. The 40-some other states are predictably Democratic or Republican. Sometimes North Carolina is a battleground, sometimes not.

With a national popular vote, every American’s vote counts the same. Candidates would have an incentive to campaign everywhere for every vote.

Is this an idea whose time has come? It may come here if Democrats take the legislature in 2020.

Taking Down the Confederacy

It was a jarring sight. The Confederate flag was flying above the State Capitol building in Raleigh.

No, this wasn’t the Civil War. It was May 10, 1977.

Jim Hunt had been Governor just four months. I was his press secretary, and I was on my way to the press office in the Capitol that beautiful spring morning when I saw the flag. It stopped me in my tracks.

I asked the Capitol historic staff about it. They said it was Confederate Memorial Day and, by tradition, the Confederate flag flew over the Capitol every May 10. That was the date of Stonewall Jackson’s death, and the date Jefferson Davis was captured after the war.

I don’t recall what happened next; nor can anyone I’ve asked. But somebody talked to somebody, and the flag came down that morning.

I do recall what happened then: Thad Eure went ballistic.

Eure was North Carolina’s long-time Secretary of State. First elected in 1936, he called himself “the oldest rat in the Democratic barn.”

Thad Eure

He was also an unreconstructed Southerner. He liked to wave the Confederate flag at UNC football games. He was the author of the notorious Speaker Ban Law in 1963.

Eure complained loudly about taking down the flag. Some legislators joined him. It was such a big stink that a compromise eventually was worked out. In the future, the Confederate national flag – the “Stars and Bars” – would be flown on the date, not the notorious flag that is a symbol for racism and a banner for racists.

The Confederate national flag

I don’t know how long that practice went on. But it was still too long.

I thought about that day when Governor Roy Cooper ordered Confederate monuments removed from Capitol Square. 

I thought about how many years so many of us took for granted those Confederate symbols and statues – and much, much worse.

I thought about the Ambassador Theater, Raleigh’s finest, one block down from the Capitol on Fayetteville Street. Blacks couldn’t sit with white movie-goers; they had to sit in the upstairs balcony.

When the Raleigh Caps minor-league baseball team played in Devereaux Meadow (I saw Carl Yastrzemski hit a home run there once), Blacks had to sit in a separate section along the left-field line.

The Sears store in Cameron Village, where Harris Teeter is now, had “white” and “colored” bathrooms and water fountains.

Jesse Helms was on WRAL (“The Voice of Free Enterprise”) every night, fulminating against Martin Luther King, the Kennedys, Terry Sanford, the “liberal News & Observer” and communist agitators behind the “so-called civil rights movement.”

In those days, TV stations signed off the air late at night. Most stations played the national anthem over video of the American flag. Not WRAL. It played a slow, mournful version of “Dixie” over photos of mossy plantations and Civil War battlefields.

I went to Raleigh public schools for 12 years, after the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation decision. I never had a Black student in my classrooms. There were few Blacks when I went to N.C. State in the late 1960s.

At some point in the 60s, many white Southerners realized that the old ways were wrong. An older friend remembered going to UNC, hearing about the civil rights movement and suddenly realizing, “Everything I’d accepted about race all my life was just wrong.”

It was wrong, and it was wrong for way too long.

Take it down, Governor. Take it all down.

Politics in the Pews

Race and religion have always shaped America’s politics. Race now dominates the 2020 debate, but religion will play a crucial role. It always does.

Churches are on the front lines of protests against racism. People of faith, black and white, may not be packing the pews because of Covid-19, but they’re standing up and speaking out.

In white evangelical churches, some people view the protests as riots, lawlessness and one more sign that America is on the wrong path. These are the people President Trump was signaling when he held up that Bible.

Lt. Governor Dan Forest has deeper roots among these evangelical Christians than any Republican gubernatorial candidate before him. When North Carolina’s original Covid-19 restrictions covered churches, Forest told pastors the political left is using the pandemic in a war against churches:

“There is no doubt that there are people that are on the left that are using this to pull certain levers to see how far that they can go. How far are they able to push? How long can they keep churches shut down? How long will Christians be silent on this matter before they stand up?”

I learned the hard way that those voters can be crucial. When Governor Jim Hunt ran against Senator Jesse Helms in 1984, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority had a goal of registering 100,000 new voters for Helms through fundamentalist churches.

Hunt got swamped in many of those precincts, especially in rural areas and small towns. He lost by about 86,000 votes, 52-48 percent.

In 1980, the Moral Majority played a big part in Ronald Reagan’s election. Ironically, he beat Jimmy Carter, whose openness about his born-again faith in the 1976 campaign made some Democrats uncomfortable. 

Elizabeth Dole, who succeeded Helms in the Senate, courted evangelicals and “prayer warriors.” But she hurt herself in her 2008 reelection race with an ad suggesting that Kay Hagan, her Democratic opponent, was affiliated with atheists who wanted to remove references to God from the public arena. The ad ran Hagan’s photo with another woman’s voice saying, “There is no God.”

Dole lost.

After Republicans won control of the North Carolina legislature in 2010, evangelicals pushed for the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. In 2016, the legislature passed the “bathroom bill,” which Lt. Governor Forest and evangelicals strongly supported. Former Governor Pat McCrory’s quick decision to sign that bill may have cost him reelection.

Democrats have their own church ties. African-American churches host voter registration and Election Day turnout drives. Candidates flock to churches on Sundays.

North Carolina has a tradition of progressive white churches. Just as they support today’s protests, they were active in the civil rights movement and Vietnam War protests.

Religion and politics go way back here.

In 1928, anti-Catholic feeling was so strong that solidly Democratic North Carolina went 55-45 for Republican Herbert Hoover over Al Smith, a Catholic.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy faced anti-Catholic prejudice. When he campaigned in North Carolina that September, he was asked – in a question his campaign may have arranged – if he’d take orders from the Pope. Kennedy said no; he would take an oath as President, on the Bible, to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Period.

He carried North Carolina. He won big margins in eastern counties that were heavily Democratic then and are heavily evangelical now.

America may have separation of church and state, but politics and religion are inseparable. Where you sit on Sunday says a lot about how you vote on Election Day.

Sic semper tyrannis

We Americans have no tolerance for tyrants.

We fought a revolution to get rid of the King. We fought a civil war to get rid of slavery. We fought World War II to get rid of the Nazis.

Earlier this year, people across North Carolina and the nation protested against what they called the “tyranny” of Covid-19 restrictions that kept them from bars, gyms and hair salons for a few months.

Reopen NC protesters called Governor Roy Cooper a “tyrant.” Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear was hung in effigy at the state Capitol, with a sign reading “Sic semper tyrannis” – “thus always to tyrants,” what John Wilkes Booth yelled after he shot Abraham Lincoln. 

But the Covid restrictions aren’t tyranny. They’re an inconvenience during a public health crisis, a crisis that isn’t over yet. 

In recent weeks, thousands of times more Americans have protested against real tyranny – the tyranny of racism that has terrorized African-Americans for centuries and continues today.

First it was slavery, America’s original sin. Then it was the Ku Klux Klan and post-Reconstruction terror. Then it was the Black Codes governing the conduct of freed slaves, then Jim Crow and white supremacy. 

In North Carolina, it was the organized massacre of black citizens in Wilmington in 1898 and the armed overthrow of a legally elected government, a story told in David Zucchino’s book “Wilmington Lies.”

Then it was segregation, disenfranchisement of black voters and discrimination in employment, housing and all facets of life. It was lynchings, whippings and police beatings. 

It didn’t end with the civil rights movement, the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act. It goes on without end.

Now all Americans have been abruptly awakened to the reality of black America, where police officers are more feared than respected. We saw cellphone videos of police brutality against African-Americans. We saw George Floyd plead for his life while a policeman’s knee squeezed the breath out of him.

After the protests began, we saw police officers across the country turn on protesters and journalists with clubs, tear gas and rubber bullets. We saw a riot squad knock down a 75-year-old man in Buffalo and stalk by him as he bled on the pavement.

We saw police departments bristling with armored cars, riot gear and semiautomatic weapons. Is their motto “serve and protect” or “dominate the battlespace”?

Sometimes the police looked more like military units. In fact, military units were called out in the nation’s capital. So were agents from the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Department of Homeland Security.

Also on the streets in Washington were officers from the Bureau of Prisons who wore riot gear but no badges or identification. They smacked of the Brownshirts in 1930s Germany.

Officers with no badges or insignia at D.C. protests

The menacing presence of these police units – and their conduct – brought white America face-to-face with what black America experiences.

Racism has deprived black Americans of the fundamental promise in our Constitution – that we are all created equal and endowed by our Creator “with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Yet the Founding Fathers also justified slavery. They counted slaves as three-fifths of whites. For generations, Americans used the Constitution to protect slavery and then to preserve discrimination and oppression.

It’s time to finally end that contradiction, keep the Constitution’s promise and rid America of the tyranny of racism.

What Would Terry Sanford Do?

North Carolina has been through tense, racially troubled times before. What happened 60 years ago should give us hope.

Racism is bad now. It was even more pervasive then.

But North Carolina had a governor, Terry Sanford, who stood up against racial discrimination when other Southern governors were standing in schoolhouse doors to keep out black students.

Governor Sanford

Sanford was elected in 1960. That February, the sit-in movement had begun in Greensboro. The civil rights movement was on the rise, and so was the virulent, violent resistance of whites in the South.

In the Democratic primary, the only election that mattered then in a heavily Democratic state, Sanford defeated I. Beverly Lake, an avowed segregationist. Lake had come to political fame fighting the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision against school segregation. He said North Carolina should shut down public schools before integrating them.

Sanford had to thread a political needle; most white North Carolinians opposed desegregation. But he declared that the state should obey the law of the land.

As Governor, he went farther. He sent his son and daughter to an integrated Raleigh elementary school. It was token integration; there was one black student, Bill Campbell, who later became mayor of Atlanta. But Sanford’s decision was symbolic.

He prodded business and municipal leaders to desegregate cafeterias, theaters and other businesses. He desegregated state parks. And he spoke up.

In January 1963, George Wallace was inaugurated Governor of Alabama, proclaiming, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Governor Sanford spoke four days later to the North Carolina Press Association – knowing he would get widespread news coverage:

The time has come for American citizens…to quit unfair discrimination and to give the Negro a full chance to earn a decent living for his family and to contribute to higher standards for himself and all men….

We can do this. We should do this….We will do it because it is honest and fair for us to give all men and women their best chance in life.”

His language in 1963 – “Negro” and “all men” – may be jarring today. It was revolutionary then. A black newspaper in Los Angeles headlined: “NC Governor (That’s Right!) Urges Equality.”

Sanford never called out the National Guard, though he sometimes had to send in State Troopers to keep peace. He didn’t feel a need to prove his toughness. He had been an Army paratrooper in World War II. He fought in Europe, was wounded and decorated for bravery.

His instinct wasn’t to crack down; it was to sit down with protesters and listen to them. He created a Good Neighbor Council where blacks and whites could talk together and work together.

That was always his way. He became President of Duke University in 1970, just as Vietnam War protests were erupting. Other college presidents called in police and shut down campuses. Sanford invited protesters into his office and heard them out.

Early in his presidency, more than a thousand students rallied and declared they were going to take over the Administration Building. Sanford joined the crowd. “Take me with you,” he said. “I’ve been trying to occupy it for a month.”

Sanford had an optimistic faith in young people. He’d be gratified today to see so many young people of all races joining protests against racism and police brutality. Photos from the early 1960s usually show white teenagers jeering, shouting and spitting at black protesters.

He’d also be proud of Governor Roy Cooper.

Sanford turned North Carolina in a new direction.

Today, we are called again to overcome hate, bigotry and injustice. Let’s ask ourselves: What would Terry do?

Protests and Politics Echo 1968

Downtown Raleigh Saturday night
N&O photo, Robert Willett

2020 feels like 1968.

Peaceful protests erupt into looting and burning. Police battle demonstrators in the streets. Black Americans vent their rage and frustration.

In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis lit the fires. This year, it was the death of George Floyd at the hands of policemen in Minneapolis.

In 1968, the nation was already divided by the Vietnam war – and protests against the war. This year, our nerves were already rubbed raw by the Covid pandemic, the economic meltdown, stay-home orders – and protests against the orders.

Then, as now, there was the sickening sense that the floor under American society was collapsing.

1968, like 2020, was a big election year. 1968 ended 36 years of Democratic dominance in Washington, since FDR’s election in 1932. It ushered in an era – more than half a century now – dominated by a Republican Party dependent on white Southerners and dedicated to the proposition that government is the problem, not the solution.

In 1968, an anguished President was trapped inside the White House by protesters chanting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Four years after winning a historic landslide, he withdrew as a candidate for reelection. His dream of a Great Society slipped away.

Today inside a White House again surrounded by protesters, an angry President lashes out at critics, the media and political opponents. Four years after winning a historic upset, he fears his dream of a smashing reelection victory fueled by a rising economy is slipping away.

In 1968, Democrats’ election hopes were shattered when their national convention in Chicago exploded in violence. This year, the Republican convention will be in Charlotte, assuming the city and state can come to terms with the Republican Party and President Trump over Covid precautions.

They also must consider the risk that Charlotte could attract a volatile mix of protesters against racism, “tyranny”-protesting Reopeners and camo-clad white nationalists waving Confederate flags and wielding assault weapons.

We don’t want Charlotte to be to 2020 what Chicago was to 1968.

Then, the violence in Chicago and the riots nationwide set off a white backlash that helped elect Richard Nixon President. George Wallace, running as a third-party candidate, fanned the flames.

Nixon benefitted from Democratic disarray, Roger Ailes’ TV genius and Strom Thurmond’s Southern Strategy. Republicans began their rise in North Carolina and the South. In 1972, North Carolina elected a Republican governor and a Republican Senator named Jesse Helms.

It almost didn’t happen. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the seemingly hapless Democratic candidate, nearly caught Nixon in the final days.

Former North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford and his chief political adviser, Bert Bennett, helped lead Humphrey’s national campaign. Bennett said years later that Humphrey would have won with another week.

But he didn’t. Nixon won and promised to “bring us together.” But he didn’t. The Vietnam War dragged on, and our racial divide persists today.

Politics, like life, rarely moves in a straight line. We don’t control events; they control us.

Even people with power – Governor, President, police chief, protest organizer – are no more in control than a ship in a storm is in control of the winds and waves.

A few months ago, we thought this election would be about impeachment and a roaring, soaring economy.

Then a virus kills 101,000 Americans and puts millions out of work.

A white policeman keeps his knee on a black man’s neck for almost nine minutes even after the victim pleads “I can’t breathe.”

An angry protester throws a firebomb.

History pays no attention to human intention.

The Check is in the Mail?

As Washington debates what to do next about the economic crisis, it should think about one thing Washington does well.

I know what that is, because I see it every month. The second Wednesday of every month. That’s the day my Social Security is deposited in my checking account.

Democrats especially might think about this.

If they win big this year, they’ll want to do something big next year. Something that works. Something that lasts.

They’d like to do something that doesn’t get them thrown out of town in 2022, which is what usually happens when Democrats do something big in Washington. Remember when Presidents Clinton and Obama tried to do health care reform their first years in office? Democrats lost big in the next mid-term elections.

A lot of ideas are floating around as the economy sinks deeper: billions for state and local governments to fill budget holes, billions for hospitals and health care, Medicare for All, an infrastructure jobs plan, renewable energy investments, worker protections and – yes – more direct checks to Americans.

Congress already sent one round of checks. Many Americans got – or were supposed to get – one-time $1,200 checks.

The stimulus efforts had problems. Big businesses got money intended for small businesses. Small businesses couldn’t make heads nor tails of what they did get and how they could and couldn’t use the money. Some gave up and sent the money back. Some didn’t get a dime.

There are charges of fraud and favoritism, corruption and cronyism, slowness and sluggishness, bureaucratic bungling and blundering.

That happens when you throw trillions of dollars at a problem in a hurry.

Why not throw the money into the hands of the American people? Let them decide how to spend it. Let the magic of the market work.

Apparently, many people will go immediately to a barbershop or hair salon. Or a bar. They’ll pay rent, buy groceries, get the car fixed, buy clothes and stock up on toilet paper. They’ll shop local. They’ll invest in America.

This isn’t a new idea born in the pandemic. It was the whole idea behind Andrew Yang’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Yang called it a “Universal Basic Income.” He proposed sending every American a check for $1,000 a month. Not just once, but forever. No income ceiling, no means-testing, no fuss, no muss. Just a monthly check.

Andrew Yang: send checks

Where would the money come from? Yang said Americans’ jobs and futures are being uprooted by new technology, so companies benefitting from technology – like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft – should pay higher taxes. They get rich collecting and selling our personal information, he said; shouldn’t they pay us back?

Some Republicans might go along. Senator Josh Hawley, a conservative Republican from Missouri, has proposed monthly payments of $1,400-$2,200 for families for the duration of the emergency. He said families “need guaranteed, accessible, and rapid relief.”

Billionaire Mark Cuban proposed $1,000 payments every two weeks to all 128 million households. The money would have to be spent within 10 days, not saved. He said, “No amount of loans to businesses will save them or jobs if their customers aren’t buying.”

It’s the opposite of trickledown. Cuban called it “trickle up.”

Yes, some will call it socialism. Opponents called Social Security socialism. But that doesn’t seem to bother us. Social Security is still around almost 90 years after Franklin D. Roosevelt started it.

Once Americans get a check, they might get to liking it. It works for me, anyway.

Coming Apart – or Coming Together?

Covid-19 might as well be called Divided-2020.

When the pandemic started, optimists thought it might inspire us to come together, the way our parents and grandparents did in the Depression and World War II. 

But if you watch the news and follow social media, we seem more divided than ever. 

As usual, we seem split along pro-Trump and anti-Trump lines. North Carolina has a “Reopen” team and a “Stay Home” team. Wearing a mask, or not, is a political statement.

Those divisions are by choice. Other divisions leave little choice. The pandemic shows that, as former North Carolina Senator John Edwards used to say, there are “two Americas.”

In one America, people still have jobs. They can work from home. They may lose some income, and their 401k’s took a hit, but they’ll make it.

The other America lost their jobs or got furloughed without pay.  They worry about paying the rent and keeping their home. They worry about feeding their families. They line up at food banks. They file for unemployment and wonder when they’ll get the check and how long it will last. They may have to go to work even if they don’t feel safe there.

In one America, we can see a doctor to get tested for the virus. In the other America, an estimated 43 million people may lose their health insurance. They can’t afford to go to a doctor.

A teacher reminded me that children, too, live in two different Americas. 

In affluent America, children have parents with the time, ability and desire to home-school. They have easy access to their schools’ online classes.

In fact, the teacher said, these kids may benefit from this time. They get a break from end-of-grade testing pressure. They get a vacation from daily schedules packed with tutoring, advanced-placement classes and music, voice or dance classes. They’ll catch up when school starts back up.

But, in the other America, children don’t have Internet. They don’t have books at home. They may not get decent meals. They get no break from neglect, abuse and homelessness. They’ll never make up what they’re missing now, the teacher said.

America needs an honest and constructive discussion about how we address these gaps in economic security, health care and education.

Will our poisoned political climate allow that? Well, maybe we’re not as divided as it seems. 

A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll May 5-10 found that two in three Americans think it will be July or later before gatherings of 10 or more people will be safe.

Yes, there is a partisan split; 80 percent of Democrats agree with that timeline. But a majority of Republicans, 54 percent, also agree.

Despite all the media coverage of protests, only 21 percent in the poll said current restrictions on restaurants, stores and other businesses in their state are too restrictive; 58 percent say they are appropriate and 20 percent, not restrictive enough.

Maybe we should pay less attention to the people yelling – on the streets, on TV and on social media. Maybe we should listen to quieter voices that speak to the basic decency of all Americans.

Like former President George W. Bush. He was never known for his way with words, but he put it pretty well recently:

“Let us remember that empathy and simple kindness are essential, powerful tools of national recovery. Even at an appropriate social distance, we can find ways to be present in the lives of others, to ease their anxiety, and share their burdens.”

Amen, Dubya. 

In Praise of Inside Players

Politics, like basketball, has an inside game and an outside game. You can win either way. But rarely do you see a political player who is good at both.

Two of the North Carolina Democratic Party’s all-time all-star inside players died this year: former state Senator Tony Rand and former state Senator and Lieutenant Governor Bob Jordan.

Both were masters of the legislative inside game. From the mid-70s until Republicans took over the legislature in 2010, either Jordan or Rand were go-to players in the Senate. They had their hands in every big issue, and they got big things passed.

Tony Rand

But in the 1988 election, they showed that legislative insiders rarely make great statewide candidates. Jordan tried and failed to unseat incumbent Republican Governor Jim Martin, and Rand lost the race for lieutenant governor to Republican Jim Gardner.

Insiders are adept at legislative maneuvering, negotiating and compromising. They come alive in floor fights, in committee and, especially, in backroom, bare-knuckled wheeling and dealing.

One lobbyist recalled talking with Rand about a knotty issue in the Senate. “He waved his hands around in circles, he talked in circles and I was totally confused. But he worked it out.”

The same skills don’t work well in the outside game. In fact, they can become negatives.

In a televised debate during the 1988 campaign, Gardner blistered Rand for being part of “the gang of eight,” a small group of powerful legislators who decided the state budget behind closed doors. Rand’s reply was famously weak: “There were not eight people there. There were six or seven people there.”

His campaign never recovered.

Jordan was often visibly uncomfortable as a candidate. He was even less comfortable with his campaign’s ads attacking Martin.

Bob Jordan

Ironically, Rand’s campaign spawned a great outsider candidate. Mike Easley, the district attorney in Southport, did a TV ad defending Rand’s crime-fighting credentials. Easley was good on TV; he went on to be elected attorney general twice and governor twice.

Some politicians are good inside and outside. My old boss, Governor Jim Hunt, was. So were Governors Martin and Jim Holshouser, both Republicans. Governor Roy Cooper was a legislator and attorney general.

Inside players rarely are great speakers. Instead, they talk inside baseball (to switch sports metaphors). They bog down explaining the legislative process, arcane things like committee substitutes, conference reports and parliamentary procedures. Remember John Kerry: “I voted for the bill before I voted against it.”

That kind of talk is fatal in the outside game. Which is why most Presidents weren’t legislators: Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and both Presidents Bush. President Obama was in the Senate and the Illinois legislature, but he was never an insider. Those Presidents’ strengths were giving big speeches, painting big pictures and setting big goals.

Lyndon Johnson, “Master of the Senate,” lost to John F. Kennedy, a lackadaisical back-bencher. Then it took LBJ to get Kennedy’s program – and a lot more – through Congress.

Let us not dismiss inside players. They can be MVPs.

When Rand died this month, he was eulogized for his work for public education, economic development, the UNC system, UNC law school and his adopted hometown of Fayetteville.

When Jordan died in February, he left a lengthy legacy: the N.C. Rural Center, the N.C. Biotechnology Center, the Basic Education Program, highway funding reform, school construction and the Teaching Fellows Program.

Rand’s obituary said, “Like they sang in ‘Hamilton,’ he wanted to be in the room where it happened.” Rand and Jordan worked their way into the rooms where it happened. Then they made things happen.

Unsettled Times, Unsettled Politics

Political pollsters often use a caveat that their audiences often ignore: “If the election were today…”

The 2020 election is not today. It’s exactly six months away. There are clear trends today, and many of them favor Joe Biden and Democrats. But Democrats who are sure that President Trump is going down – and taking the Republican Party with him – need to remember history and get real.

Recently I listened in on a state-of-the-election briefing by one of the best pollsters in the business – Harrison Hickman, a North Carolina native. Hickman and I go way back; we worked together for Governor Jim Hunt in the 1990s. When he talks, I listen.

Americans are feeling “unsettled” by the Covid-19 crisis, he said in the briefing, but some things are settled. “People want a new tone in their politics. There’s more of a sense that we’re all in this together.”


There’s more awareness of social and economic inequalities. There’s more feeling that government action – and spending – are needed. And people’s faith in medical and scientific experts has increased.

Those trends seemingly should help Biden and Democrats this year, Hickman said.

He noted that President Trump’s approval ratings have fallen back to about 40-45 percent. Trump got only a small – and temporary – bump early in the crisis. “Compare that to previous presidents in times of crisis. They had dramatic increases.”

Now, “every day Trump has a press briefing, it helps Democrats,” Hickman said. Polls in battleground states consistently show Biden leading.

But Hickman raised a warning flag about polling during the Covid-19 crisis: “It’s unclear whether polls are working like they should.” In normal times, poll calls are made from centralized call centers. Quality control is high. Today, callers work from home. There’s not as much oversight.

He added that many polls today are made by automated calls, which legally can call only land lines, not cell phones. Some polls are done online, but only 50-60 percent of Americans are regularly online.

Then there’s the predictable unpredictability of presidential campaigns.

In 2016, Hickman said, “The key swing group was 20 percent of voters who disliked both Trump and Hillary Clinton. Through most of the campaign, a majority of them supported Clinton.”

But they switched in the final 10 days, after FBI Director James Comey reopened the investigation of Clinton’s emails. Trump won 65 percent of them.

Today, Hickman said, 65 percent of the voters who dislike both Trump and Biden say they’ll vote for Biden. But, again, that can turn on a day’s headlines – and turn battleground states and the Electoral College upside down.

On top of all that uncertainty, I sense uncertainty – even among Democrats and Biden fans – about Biden as a candidate.

He can talk too much and say too little. For all his years in politics, he’s still largely untested. In fact, he flunked the test in the 1988 and 2008 presidential races.

This year, Biden’s candidacy was faltering until Jim Clyburn endorsed him and moderate Democrats coalesced behind him on Super Tuesday. That dramatic shift was fueled by fear of Bernie Sanders.

Now Biden has been forced into the basement of his Delaware home. For better and for worse, he has dropped off the radar. His campaign lags way behind Trump’s in fundraising and online.

He is grappling with a 1993 sexual assault allegation. Hunter Biden lurks in the wings. And the debates lie ahead.

Maybe the polls are right. Maybe Trump is done for. Maybe Biden and Democrats win big if the election were today.

But it’s not today. No maybe about it.