Joe Biden’s surprisingly progressive presidency looks more like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson than his more recent Democratic predecessors – Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Now Biden has an opportunity to do something no Democrat since FDR has done: get Americans to believe their government can work for them.
Like FDR and LBJ, Biden began with a big bang. He’s spending big bucks to put money into people’s pockets and put people to work.
In his first 50 days, Biden pushed through his $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan.” It sends money to individuals, businesses, and state and local governments to deal with the coronavirus and help people in need.
Now he has proposed an “American Jobs Plan” that would inject $2 trillion-plus into infrastructure, green energy and addressing economic inequities.
The White House website says:
“This is no time to build back to the way things were. This is a moment to reimagine and rebuild a new economy. The American Jobs Plan is a historic investment that will create millions of good jobs, rebuild our country’s infrastructure, and position the United States to out-compete China. It will invest in America in a way we have not invested since we built the interstate highways and won the Space Race—positioning the United States to lead in infrastructure and innovation once again.”
This is not the Joe Biden who was viewed little more than a year ago as a cautious, moderate fuddy-duddy trapped in the bygone days of bipartisan amity in the Senate.
This is also not the kind of presidency we saw from Carter, Clinton and Obama. All three spent – some Democrats say wasted – months and even years trying to put together comprehensive but complicated policy initiatives and get Republicans in Congress to vote for them: energy in Carter’s case and healthcare in Clinton’s and Obama’s.
The goals were laudable. But the process was laborious. And the impact was hard for Americans to see and feel.
Roosevelt and Johnson, who was a Roosevelt protege, didn’t make that mistake. Their actions were big and bold, simple and sweeping. They directly affected people.
FDR’s New Deal provided support for farmers, the unemployed, youth and the elderly. He passed banking reforms and financial regulations. And he gave Americans Social Security.
LBJ built on that with Medicare and Medicaid. He passed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. His long list of achievements includes – just to name a few – Head Start, Food Stamps, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Clean Air Act, the Wilderness Act and the Highway Beautification Act.
Notably, it’s two Senate veterans, Johnson and Biden, who passed the most sweeping legislation, not the Washington outsiders Carter, Clinton and Obama.
But LBJ’s success was short-lived. Republicans won big in the 1966 midterm elections. Vietnam and racial divisions doomed his Great Society and War on Poverty.
Neither Carter, Clinton nor Obama sustained momentum after their first two years. Carter had problems with the Ted Kennedy wing of his party. Clinton and Obama suffered big losses in their first midterm elections, in 1994 and 2010.
If Biden passes his program, if the country recovers from Covid, if the economy comes back and if Americans decide his program works – all big ifs – he might put an end to Ronald Reagan’s doctrine that government is the problem, not the solution. That philosophy has dominated politics for 40 years.
Biden would go down in history not as a transitional President, but as a transformational one.
My blog/newspaper column this week about Governor Roy Cooper and Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson raised a question: Why are our two top officials, unlike the President and Vice President, elected separately?
It’s the unintended consequence of three constitutional amendments – one after the Civil War and two that came a century later, in the 1970s.
Before the Civil War, North Carolina didn’t have a lieutenant governor. Somehow we got by.
The office was created by the state Constitutional Convention of 1868. North Carolina, like other Confederate states, was required to rewrite its constitution before being re-admitted to the Union.
The rewrite was modeled after the constitution of Ohio and other northern states. It abolished slavery and gave Blacks (men only, of course) the right to vote.
The revision provided for a lieutenant governor, to be popularly elected along with the governor every four years. The lieutenant governor was made president of the Senate and first in line to succeed the governor.
Over the years, many states moved away from the separate election of governor and lieutenant governor and put them on the same ticket. Today, 26 states do it that way; 17 (as best I can tell), do it like North Carolina, including several Southern states: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia.
For many years, two things kept North Carolina’s governors and lieutenant governors from fighting: both could serve only one term, and the lieutenant governor was a parttime office, serving only during short (in those days) legislative sessions.
Then North Carolina rewrote its constitution in 1971. John V. Orth wrote in the Encyclopedia of North Carolina:
“The North Carolina Constitution of 1971 clarified the purpose and operations of state government. Ambiguities and sections seemingly in conflict with the U.S. Constitution were either dropped or rewritten. The document consolidated the governor’s duties and powers, expanded the Council of State, and increased the office’s budgetary authority. It required the General Assembly to reduce the more than 300 state administrative departments to 25 principal departments and authorized the governor to organize them subject to legislative approval. It provided that extra sessions of the legislature be convened by action of three-fifths of its members rather than by the governor alone. And it revised portions of the previous constitution dealing with state and local finance.”
The revision also made the lieutenant governor a full-time office, with a staff. The first person to take advantage was Jim Hunt, who was elected lieutenant governor in 1972.
That was the year North Carolina elected the first Republican governor of the 20th Century, Jim Holshouser. Hunt was not only the first fulltime lieutenant governor, but also the top elected Democrat.
Hunt and Holshouser generally got along, though. Holshouser was a moderate mountain Republican; he and Hunt both supported statewide kindergartens and teacher pay raises.
They worked together to stop Democratic legislators’ efforts to strip away the governor’s powers. Hunt, after all, had plans to use those powers himself in four years.
After Hunt was elected governor in 1976, he made the other constitutional change that changed the relationship between the two offices. He pushed through succession, a constitutional amendment allowing both governors and lieutenant governors to run for a second term.
That’s where we are today.
There have been efforts to jointly elect the governor and lieutenant governor; the most recent was in 2015. But the change requires a constitutional amendment, and the idea didn’t get the three-fifths majority necessary in the House.
“The lieutenant governor is a heartbeat away from the governor’s mansion,” said Rep. Bert Jones, a Republican from Reidsville who sponsored the bill. “Those two should be working together and they should be doing so in such a way that, Lord forbid, if something were to happen to the governor, the lieutenant governor makes a smooth transition into that office.”
But Rep. Larry Pittman, a Republican from Concord, argued, “Part of the reason for having an independent lieutenant governor, even if they’re the same party, is to limit the power of the governor, the influence and the control that he might exercise over the Senate through someone who was maybe, for lack of a better word, his lackey.”
The way our ship of state is designed today, the lieutenant governor is more likely to be a loose cannon on deck than a lackey.
As a Black conservative Republican, Mark Robinson isn’t North Carolina’s traditional Lieutenant Governor. But he’s squarely in the tradition of Lieutenant Governors bedeviling Governors.
One reason Governor Roy Cooper won’t run for U.S. Senate next year, even though he believes he’d win, he said in an interview, is that “we have a Republican lieutenant governor and if you look at who he is and what he stands for, I’m not sure that North Carolina needs two years of that.”
“Two years of that” would be different from two years of Cooper.
Take public schools. Cooper has proposed an ambitious education budget, including 10% pay raises, funds to address inequities and a school-construction bond issue.
Robinson, meanwhile, set up a task force to look into “indoctrination” in public schools. He argued against new state social studies standards that he said are “political in nature” and unfairly portray America as “systemically racist.”
Robinson has a history of eye-catching rhetoric.
He said the movie “Black Panther” was “created by an agnostic Jew.” He said Muslims “are not ‘immigrants,’ they are INVADERS.” He called former President Obama “a worthless, anti-American atheist who wanted to bring this nation to its knees.”
He shot to fame with a passionate gun-rights speech to the Greensboro City Council in 2018. That led to a speech at the NRA’s national convention. With NRA support and 100,000 Facebook followers, he won the Republican primary for lieutenant governor with 32.5% of the vote; Senator Andy Wells was second with 14.5%.
In November, Robinson defeated Democratic Yvonne Lewis Holley, who is also Black, by 51.6-48.4%.
“You might not like my politics,” Robinson says, “but I made history in this state.”
History shows that governors and lieutenant governors in North Carolina often don’t like each other. We’re one of 17 states where the two are elected separately. They can be from different parties; they can have different philosophies, conflicting personalities and competing ambitions.
I saw that working for Governor Jim Hunt in his first two terms, 1977-1985. Lieutenant Governor Jimmy Green was a Democrat like Hunt, but he was more conservative, he didn’t like Hunt and he wanted to be governor instead of Hunt. They fought frequently.
Three different times since 1972, governors and lieutenant governors were from different parties: Hunt and Republican Governor Jim Holshouser (1973-1977), Republican Governor Jim Martin and Lieutenant Governor Bob Jordan (1985-1989), and Cooper and Republican Dan Forest (2017-2021).
Even when the two are from the same party, are friendly and have compatible philosophies, there can be tensions. Lieutenant governors inevitably want more power and responsibility; governors invariably resist. Staffers on both sides inevitably rub each other wrong.
All lieutenant governors want to run for governor. But that’s not a proven path in North Carolina.
Since 1972, only two lieutenant governors have gone on to be elected governor: Hunt (1976, 1980, 1992 and 1996) and Bev Perdue (2008). Six lost races for governor: Green (1984), Jordan (1988), Jim Gardner (1992), Dennis Wicker (2000), Walter Dalton (2012) and Forest (2016).
You have better odds as attorney general. Of the six between 1972 and 2016, two got elected governor: Cooper and Mike Easley (2000 and 2004). One, Robert Morgan, got elected Senator (1974). Two lost races for governor, Rufus Edmisten (1984) and Lacy Thornburg (1992). One had been appointed attorney general and lost reelection: Jim Carson (1974).
The current Attorney General, Democrat Josh Stein, is a likely candidate for governor in 2024. So is Mark Robinson.
That contest would offer a stark contrast in party, philosophy and personality.
Let’s take a break from politics. Baseball season is starting, and the best baseball movie ever, “Bull Durham,” was made in Durham. The movie, in turn, may have made Durham what it is today. Dan Barkin wrote this story in Business North Carolina about the movie, the baseball team and the city.
By Dan Barkin
There was a paragraph inside the Charlotte Observer on Oct. 4, 1987, one of those items in a roundup of state news.
“DURHAM — A production company making a baseball movie in Durham will spend about $15,000 to make changes at Durham Athletic Park and an area house. Shooting for ‘Bull Durham’ is expected to begin this month at the park and other locations around the state.”
Of course, we now know that “a baseball movie” would become the baseball movie, immortalizing Crash Davis, Annie Savoy and their summer project Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh, a young pitcher possessed of a million-dollar arm and a 5-cent head.
The major league baseball regular season starts Thursday. That means two things every time March turns to April. I am uneasy about Red Sox pitching and I watch Bull Durham to get in game shape.
While I still enjoyed the movie for the 30th or so time, I realized last week they could not make it today in Durham. The movie shows a Durham of the 1980s before its economic revival.
Downtown Durham is a different place now. It has beautiful brick and glass buildings. Abandoned textile mills and the empty tobacco buildings – the town’s unhappy signature decades ago – have been transformed into offices, restaurants and homes.
In the movie and real life in the 1980s, the Bulls were riding buses in the Class A-Advanced Carolina League. The Durham team now is in the Triple-A – the highest level of the minors – where a bag stays packed for a sudden call-up to Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays. A next-level promotion for a Bull in the 1980s would have put him in Greenville, S.C, in what was then the AA Southern League.
The current Bulls’ stadium, the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, which opened next to the Durham Freeway in 1995, is gorgeous. It is also miraculous.
Improbable things had to happen for it to replace the 1930s-era DAP. First of all, a visionary named Miles Wolff had to restart the Bulls franchise in 1980 – the team shut down after the 1971 season. Then a screenwriter-director named Ron Shelton, a one-time AAA ballplayer, and a Durham-native producer named Thom Mount had to decide to make a low-budget movie about life in baseball’s bush leagues.
Wolff’s Bulls were drawing well in the 1980s, but when the movie hit theaters in June 1988, the team’s popularity exploded, with merch selling nationally. The Bulls were primed for bigger things, a move up to Triple-A, but they needed a bigger, shinier venue. After county voters rejected a bond referendum for a new downtown stadium, Wolff sold the team to Jim Goodmon and Capitol Broadcasting. In 1992, at considerable political risk, the City Council approved a stadium funding plan that didn’t require citizen approval.
Maybe the next part would have happened anyway, but what followed was a burst of investment and energy in downtown Durham, as if all the attention from the movie gave investors and city officials confidence and ambition. The old blue-collar town started announcing its presence with authority, with a burst of growth that would double its population over the next three decades.
The empty, old buildings next to the ballpark became the American Tobacco Campus. The old Liggett & Myers buildings became West Village, with upscale residences, offices and retail. The old Golden Belt textile mill complex was renovated. The Durham Performing Arts Center was built near the ballpark, which was also ringed by the Diamond View office buildings. And these were just the marquee projects. Fancy hotels and restaurants popped up.
Since 2000 in downtown Durham, private investment has totaled nearly $1.5 billion, and the public investment has kicked in another $640-plus million.
I got these numbers from Nicole Thompson, CEO of Downtown Durham Inc. She told me that a couple years ago, on her organization’s 25th anniversary, they put together a presentation to show how much had changed since the early ‘90s.
“We were able to find pictures from back then, and then go and take a picture of what it looks like now. And it’s still startling to look at.”
When she travelled on business – pre-COVID, of course – she would mention in conversations on a plane that she was from Durham, and her seatmates would proceed to tell her how they were visiting Raleigh but just had to go to Durham to see the ballpark. (Occasionally they would remark how much it had changed, and she would tell them they had visited the new park, not the one on the north side of downtown that was Shelton’s set.)
So, I was watching the movie last week, and Crash has just been cut loose by the organization, his mission accomplished. Rosters expand in the last month of the major league season, and LaLoosh, finally having been mentored sufficiently and differently by Annie and Crash, was called up to the big club. Crash is walking at night in 1987 by cavernous brick buildings that are vestiges of a once-dominant Durham tobacco industry. He has the street to himself.
I thought as I watched, well that’s another thing. Today, he’d be walking through West Village and he wouldn’t be alone.
I consulted someone knowledgeable about both the movie and the town, veteran journalist Kip Coons, who worked for the Durham Morning Herald as a sports writer in the 1980s. I worked with Coons when he was at The News & Observer. His expertise came not just from living and working in Durham before Bull Durham, but also because he was an extra in the movie.
You may remember him from his star turn early in the film when LaLoosh is being interviewed in the locker room. Coons is one of the sports writers.
Coons told me that wasn’t the real DAP locker room. That was too small for scenes like the manager’s lollygaggers speech in the showers. The locker room was a set built in a nearby Durham warehouse.
Coons wound up in the film because he brought his son to the casting call at a local hotel. The part, it turned out, was for the little boy who shuttled notes between Annie and players in the dugout. His son was too young for the role. But they quickly realized that Coons knew how to stand next to an athlete and take notes.
Coons had two observations when we talked the other day. First, he said the power of the movie was its authenticity. There was a scene in the film in which the manager has to release a player who is struggling at the plate. The player pleads for more time, but the manager says no. The emotional player angrily yanks a chair across the office and storms out.
Coons was at a special showing of the film for players the day it was released in June 1988, Bulls players and members of the Lynchburg Red Sox, who were in town.
“The players were all laughing and joking during the movie,” said Coons. “When the player got released, you could have heard a pin drop in the theater. You would have thought we were in church. That place went quiet in a hurry, because all those guys knew, hey, that can be me tomorrow, next week. That’s when I knew he had captured it.”
Second, he spoke to the impact of the movie on Durham. “If Bull Durham doesn’t happen, the [new ballpark] is probably not built, and you wonder if the other stuff around it gets built.
“The DPAC and all the nice restaurants over there, American Tobacco – all that stuff. Without the movie, you wonder what happens as far as Durham’s renaissance,” he said. “Does it come about? There would be questions whether it works as smoothly and as successfully as it did.”
For 150 years, North Carolina has been a battleground over Black citizens’ voting rights. Get ready for another battle.
Governor Roy Cooper issued a warning this month:
“I expect Republican leadership in our North Carolina legislature to follow a lot of other state legislatures in using this ‘big lie’ of voter fraud as an excuse for laws that suppress the vote. Let’s just get real about it: These laws are intended to discourage people from voting.”
Legislators in 43 states have proposed more than 250 bills to suppress voting. Georgia just passed one that The New York Times says will have “an outsize impact on Black voters.”
Reporters in Raleigh have speculated that similar bills will be introduced this year – and rushed through the legislature to Governor Cooper’s desk.
Our state has been here before. Resistance began as soon as the Fifteenth Amendment gave Blacks the right to vote after the Civil War.
Blacks helped elect Governor William W. Holden, a Republican, in 1868. In 1870, the Ku Klux Klan used murder and intimidation to suppress Republican votes. Democrats regained control of the legislature. They impeached Holden and removed him from office.
Despite Jim Crow laws and the Klan, Blacks continued to hold elected office in North Carolina during the 19th Century. The last to serve in Congress was George Henry White (1897-1901).
Then white supremacists took over. In 1898, white mobs murdered Black citizens and overthrew the legally elected government of Wilmington. The Democratic Party and The News & Observer, working together, imposed ruthless voter-suppression laws that disenfranchised Blacks for decades.
In the 1960s, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act despite filibusters by Southern Senators, including North Carolina’s Sam Ervin, a Democrat.
The two parties then reversed roles on race. The Democratic Party, once the party of white supremacy, embraced civil rights. Southern whites embraced the Republican Party, once the party of Lincoln.
The News & Observer became a strong voice for civil rights and racial equality.
Republican Senator Jesse Helms, elected in 1972, took up the Southern-resistance banner. He had won fame fulminating on WRAL-TV against the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He held his seat for 30 years; he never changed his views on race.
The U.S. Justice Department accused Helms’ 1990 campaign – against a Black opponent, Harvey Gantt – of intimidating Black voters. The campaign sent 125,000 postcards, mostly to Black voters, falsely claiming they were not eligible and could be prosecuted for voter fraud. Helms’ campaign later signed a consent decree to settle the complaint.
A former Democrat, Helms had been involved in one of the most racist campaigns in North Carolina’s history, Willis Smith’s victory over Frank Porter Graham in the 1950 Senate Democratic primary. Smith’s campaign passed out flyers that said: “White People Wake Up.”
Despite Helms, North Carolina earned a reputation in the last decades of the 20th Century as a progressive state on racial issues.
Then, in 2010 – the first midterm after the election of Barack Obama, the first Black President – Republicans won majorities in the state House and Senate.
In 2013, they passed an election law that the Brennan Center for Justice called “possibly the most restrictive” in the nation. It required a photo ID, curtailed early voting, ended same-day registration and ended provisional voting.
A federal court said the law “disproportionately affected” Black voters, targeting them “with almost surgical precision.” Lawsuits tied up many of the law’s provisions.
Now – in the wake of the 2020 election and Donald Trump’s false claims of voter fraud – North Carolina may be in for another battle.
My blog/newspaper column earlier this week mined only a thin layer of the rich material in the new edition of David Price’s book, “The Congressional Experience: An Institution Transformed.”
I return today for more: the 4th District Congressman’s role in reforming the Democratic Party’s presidential-nominating process.
And electing Joe Biden.
My boss, Governor Jim Hunt, was appointed in 1981 to chair the national party’s Commission on Presidential Nomination. Democrats had lost three of the last four presidential races. The party saw bitter battles over nominating rules.
Hunt recruited Price to be the commission’s staff director. Price had just spent a year as executive director of the state Democratic Party, taking a leave from teaching at Duke University.
Now he had to swim with the sharks in Washington. Democrats were split from the Jimmy Carter-Ted Kennedy contest in 1980. There were deep divisions between liberals and moderates, between regions and between supporters of various presidential hopefuls.
David spent most weeks working in Washington; I helped him stay connected with Governor Hunt. We spent hours on the phone at night. I watched him build trust and consensus among wildly disparate commission members from across the country and the often-volatile political operatives who served on advisory committees.
The Hunt Commission’s major reform was to give party leaders and elected officials (“PL/EOs”) slots as unpledged delegates to national conventions. Price writes that the term “superdelegates” is misleading: “We certainly did not see them as king- and queen-makers, much less as some sort of rump convention.”
Instead, the delegate slots “were designed to correct an unintended consequence of earlier reforms: the virtual elimination of elected officials and even some top party officials from convention delegations.”
But the so-called “superdelegates” became increasingly controversial later, especially after the DNC increased their numbers. Supporters of Bernie Sanders pushed after 2016 to deny those delegates convention votes for President.
Price proposed an alternative, reducing the number of PL/EOs from 750 to 500. But the DNC stripped the unpledged delegates of a first-ballot vote in 2020. Price writes:
“This is a worrisome outcome, not mainly for the members of Congress, governors and mayors who justifiably feel aggrieved, but for the party itself, which seems to be once again inviting the disengagement of its elected officials from the convention and party affairs.”
Price takes pride in another reform.
In 2005, he co-chaired the DNC Commission on Presidential Nomination Timing and Scheduling. It addressed the unrepresentative nature of the early Iowa and New Hampshire contests. To ensure “greater geographic and ethnic/racial diversity,” Price writes, Nevada and South Carolina were added to the early schedule. He adds:
“Any doubts about the significance of our work were belatedly dispelled…by South Carolina’s dramatic role in reversing Joe Biden’s fortunes and putting him on the path to nomination in the presidential contest of 2020.”
Once again, David Price quietly got a big job done.
The cover of North Carolina Congressman David Price’s new book sums up American politics today: dark storm clouds looming over the gleaming Capitol dome.
Published before the January 6 mob attack on the Capitol, Price’s book describes the dangers our democracy faces. But he charts a hopeful course for the future, suggesting that “the patriotism our country needs is neither uncritical love nor loveless criticism but a posture of love and loyalty combined with a determination to repair and reform.”
This is the fourth edition of Price’s study, “The Congressional Experience: An Institution Transformed.”
No one can guide us more expertly than the former Duke University professor and 17-term congressman. He’s a politician and a political scientist, a scholar and a senior leader in Congress, a battle-tested campaigner and an insightful student of government.
A Democrat, he has represented North Carolina’s Fourth Congressional District since 1986, except for two years after he temporarily lost his seat in 1994. He has a powerful position on the Appropriations Committee. He’s the dean of the state’s House delegation. And he’s a skilled policy entrepreneur.
He knows how to make the levers of government work, a talent that is underappreciated and denigrated in today’s polarized, hyper-partisan politics.
Price traces Congress’ dysfunction to “our broken electoral system,” including “extreme partisan gerrymandering; the dominance of unaccountable, unlimited big money in elections (and) widespread voter suppression.”
He says “mainstream Democrats need to overcome factionalism for the sake of the larger goal of defeating Trump and Trumpism, forming a workable governing coalition and taking the country in a positive direction, internationally and at home.”
He’s interested in accomplishments, not attention-getting. He has to his credit a new headquarters building for the North Carolina National Guard and a new EPA research facility in Research Triangle Park.
He has worked on wide-ranging issues: border security, Raleigh-to-Richmond rail service, expanded housing, higher-education affordability, Teaching Fellows, home-equity loan disclosure and Veterans Administration prosthetic research.
Three long-time initiatives are making private security contractors working overseas subject to U.S. criminal law, requiring standardized reports on income and spending by college athletic programs, and replacing hog-waste lagoons with new technologies.
He always has pursued campaign reform. HR1, House Democrats’ reform bill, includes four ideas he champions: “Empower small donors, shine a spotlight on dark money, crack down on candidate coordination with Super PACs and boost transparency for political ads.”
He and his friend Mac McCorkle of Duke University pioneered “Stand By Your Ad” laws that require candidates to appear in and assume responsibility for their campaign commercials.
Some of his reform ideas are counter-intuitive: He would restore congressional earmarks. Eliminating earmarks, he writes, “has neither reduced spending nor rendered funding decisions less ‘political’; it has merely shifted the locus of project-level decisions from legislators to agency officials.”
Price’s book is deep and detailed, thoughtful and thought-provoking. It’s a serious study of how government works, doesn’t work and can work better. It’s not the fodder of Twitter chatter; it’s the grueling, unglamorous work that affects people’s lives.
His work reflects his faith; he has a divinity degree. In a chapter about religion and politics, he writes that our traditions “counsel a kind of religious humility, a sense that our own strivings are always subject to God’s judgment.”
It says a lot about our world that we don’t hear nearly as much about David Price as we do about, say, Madison Cawthorn, the newly elected congressman from North Carolina’s 11thDistrict.
Politics might be better, and Congress might work better, if we paid better attention to David Price.
“The Congressional Experience, An Institution Transformed” by David Price
More than 113 million Americans have been vaccinated (as of Thursday) for Covid, the vast majority since Biden was inaugurated. A $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan was passed over unanimous Republican opposition.
David Brooks of The New York Times and Thomas Mills of PoliticsNC both called Biden a “transformational” President.
Which led me to pull off the shelf a dog-eared book – the best, I say, ever written about politics: “What It Takes: The Way to the White House,” by Richard Ben Cramer.
It’s a 1,047-page, exhaustively researched, brilliantly written dissection of the 1988 presidential campaign and six of the candidates: Republicans George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole and Democrats Biden, Michael Dukakis, Dick Gephardt and Gary Hart.
Their names evoke ancient political history. Yet now Biden is President. And the book, though published in 1993, is timely.
Cramer, who died in 2013, was a legendary reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting in the Middle East. He also wrote a great biography of Joe DiMaggio.
“What It Takes” took prodigious research; Cramer interviewed more than 1,000 people, talking to some of them 50 or 60 times. He bored into the candidates, their families and their campaigns to answer two questions: “Who are these guys? What are they like?”
(I love that the book doesn’t have an index. Cramer knew that Important People in Politics always opened a book first to the index and looked for their names. They couldn’t with his book.)
Of Biden the boy, he wrote, “Joe Biden had balls. Lots of times, more balls than sense.” Like the time a friend bet $5 he wouldn’t run to the top of a lava-hot mountain of culm left over from a coal mine. Joey did it. Or when Joey, who was eight or nine, took another dare that he wouldn’t run under a moving dump truck. Joey was small and quick; he did it.
He was quick with his fists:
“Most guys who got into a fight, they’d square off, there’d be a minute or so of circling around, while they jockeyed for position. Joey didn’t do that. He decided to fight … BANGO – he’d punch the kid in the face.”
Biden stuttered, “a cruel affliction for a kid.” Schoolmates mocked him: “B-b-b-b-b-b-Biden.”
But he had self-confidence. He met his first wife Neilia’s mother when he was at the University of Delaware. She asked what he meant to become:
“’President,’ Joe answered. For a moment, she just stared. Joe added helpfully, ‘Of the United States’.”
Biden’s 1988 campaign for President flopped. He had no clear message and too many big-name consultants arguing with each other. Plagiarism charges forced him out of the race.
Biden returned to the Senate, where he was Judiciary Committee Chairman. President Reagan nominated Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Biden (Syracuse Law ’64) took on Judge Bork (University of Chicago BA and JD; Yale Law professor). Biden called in experts from Chicago, Harvard and Duke Law to school him on constitutional law. Cramer wrote:
“Biden ran a long and serious hearing, the best discussion (and a high enactment) of the Constitution in the TV age….”
He won. He led Bork to say he saw no right to privacy in the Constitution. The Senate turned down his nomination. Biden stopped Reagan’s ideological transformation of the Supreme Court.
Months later, at 1 a.m. in a hotel room in Rochester, NY, after a speech, Biden was hit with a crippling headache that wouldn’t stop. He managed to get on the plane the next morning, then get home to bed. His family made him go to the hospital; doctors found an aneurism on his brain. He was in surgery for nine hours.
When he woke up, he told a friend, “Now I know why the campaign ended like it did.” If he’d been on the campaign trail, he’d have died.
Later he realized what he should’ve run on, Cramer wrote:
“…(T)hat’s what Americans wanted from their government: just a helping hand, to make the fight for a better life for their kids, just a platform to stand on, so they could reach higher….
“He should have just listened to the truth in himself. That was his life: he was just a middle-class kid who’d got a little help along the way…. (T)hat’s what connected him to the great body of voters in the country.”
Even after 50 years in Washington, it still connects him.
Looking back, it’s clear that North Carolina took a big step in 2008 toward becoming a Democratic state in presidential elections. It’s not clear whether we’ll keep moving in that direction.
Since 2008, Democrats have confidently predicted that demographic trends – more young voters, minority voters and college-educated voters – would make North Carolina more like Virginia, which is increasingly Democratic, and Georgia, which was surprisingly Democratic in 2020.
Before we explore whether that will happen, let’s be clear about the “blue shift” that already has happened.
From 1980 to 2004, North Carolina was reliably Republican in presidential races. Republican candidates carried the state seven straight times, usually by double digits.
Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter here by 2% in 1980, then swamped Walter Mondale by 24% in 1984; George H. W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis by over 16% in 1988. Bill Clinton made North Carolina competitive again in 1992, losing to Bush by less than 1%, partly because Ross Perot was on the ballot and siphoned votes away from Bush. Bob Dole beat Clinton here by 4.7% in 1996.
In 2000, George W. Bush beat Al Gore in North Carolina by 12.8%; Bush beat John Kerry by 12.4% in 2004, even with former North Carolina Senator John Edwards on the Democratic ticket.
But that pattern changed dramatically in 2008.
The breakthrough didn’t come the way experts expected: with a moderate white candidate from the South, another Carter or Clinton. Instead, it was a Black candidate, an unknown first-term Senator from Illinois with an unlikely name and an unexpected appeal.
Republicans scoffed that year at reports Barack Obama’s campaign was targeting North Carolina. No way, they said, could a Black Democrat win such a safe Republican state.
But Obama did win, by just 0.3%, thanks to a surge of minority voters and young voters. He won white working-class voters who had lost faith in Republican economic policies and lost patience with never-ending wars in the Middle East. John McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin for Vice President cost him women and college-educated voters.
North Carolina turned red again on the electoral maps of 2012, 2016 and 2020. But the margins never returned to pre-2008 levels. Mitt Romney beat Obama here in 2012 by just 2%. Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 3.6% in 2016 and Joe Biden by 1.3% in November.
Democrats here have been inspired by Democrats in Georgia, which went for President Biden and elected two Democratic Senators. Efforts have begun to replicate Georgia Democrats’ voter registration and turnout juggernaut.
But North Carolina isn’t Georgia. We’re more rural. While both states have over 10 million people, Georgia’s rural population is about 1.8 million; North Carolina’s is over 3 million. Georgia has more Black voters – 30% of the total electorate, compared to North Carolina’s 20%.
Three questions will decide the future of North Carolina’s “blue shift.”
First, will Covid and its economic impact put an end to the 40-year reign of Ronald Reagan’s philosophy that “government is the problem”? Some polls suggest Americans today want more from government, not less.
Second, which party’s set of issues matter more to voters? Biden and Democrats are focusing on Covid vaccines, economic relief, climate change, and gender and racial equality. Republicans are focused on abortion, immigration, “reopening” the country and “cancel culture.”
Third, which will prevail: Democrats’ efforts to expand voting or Republicans’ efforts to restrict it?
In a state where presidential elections are decided by 1, 2 or 3%, small actions and small shifts in attitudes can produce big shifts in outcomes.
The News & Observer recently did one thing I liked – and one thing I didn’t.
I liked an online readers’ roundtable the paper hosted with its state-politics reporters. I was impressed by the reporters and by the paper’s commitment to covering state government.
I didn’t like how the N&O covered the N&O’s coverage of Soul City in the 1970s. Today’s paper wasn’t fair to yesterday’s paper.
Some two dozen readers – the N&O called us “community supporters” – joined the political roundtable a week ago. I actually wasn’t invited; a friend forwarded me the notice. But they let me in and let me ask a question about voter-suppression bills.
The hour-long session was hosted by Executive Editor Robyn Tomlin and Managing Editor Sharif Durhams. The reporters were NC Insider Editor Colin Campbell, Danielle Battaglia, Will Doran, Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan and Adam Wagner.
Partisan hostilities are muted now in the legislature, likely because members have come together on Covid relief.
But legislators probably will chop away at Governor Roy Cooper’s emergency Covid powers. The reporters also expect partisan fights over the budget and redistricting and, likely, voter-suppression bills.
Medicaid expansion has no chance, because Senate President Pro-Tem Phil Berger’s “rigid” ideology leaves him unmoved by “political tides.”
On voter-suppression, the panel said legislative leaders may hold off until late in the session. Sometime this fall, a bill might pop up on a Monday, be rushed through the House and Senate and be on Governor Cooper’s desk by Friday.
It was good to see the paper’s commitment to covering Raleigh, despite the daunting challenges the media faces today.
But I was disappointed by the N&O’s Soul City coverage.
A few weeks back, the paper reported on a new book by Thomas Healy, “Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia.” Healy blamed Soul City’s demise, in part, on the late N&O Editor Claude Sitton and retired investigative reporter Pat Stith.
The other culprit, Healy says, was North Carolina’s Senator Jesse Helms, normally a sworn enemy of the N&O.
Healy’s book was the subject of three pieces in the N&O – an interview with the author, an excerpt from the book and an editorial column. All three gave Healy his say. But none gave the other side of the story.
Sitton can’t defend himself; he’s no longer living. Pat Stith is; he’s still hiking the Appalachian Trial at age 78. But the N&O didn’t talk to him.
Last weekend, the paper belatedly ran a response from Stith (link below). It was persuasive.
Stith noted that Healy’s book itself described many of the problems at Soul City that had nothing to do with Helms or the N&O: the developers’ inexperience, poor location, no infrastructure, an economic downturn, “grossly inadequate” capitalization and, with President Nixon’s resignation in 1974, a loss of political influence in Washington.
Reading Healy’s criticism of the N&O’s coverage, Stith wrote, “I wondered if he had read his own book.”
He added, “Healy left some interesting facts out of his book and I wonder if that was because they didn’t fit the new narrative.” Among those “inconvenient facts:”
Federal officials “cooked the books” to keep Soul City from failing in 1976, two and a half years before the federal government gave up.
“Soul City achieved less than 10 percent of its five-year goals – a lot less,” including only 1.6% of its job goals.
Yes, the project was opposed by Senator Helms – in Stith’s words, “a conservative who was also a bigot.” But Healy didn’t point out that Senator Robert Morgan, a Democrat, withdrew his support for the project.
Stith did something the N&O didn’t do: He gave Healy a chance to respond. Healey said he was “comfortable” with his book and that it didn’t include everything that happened, only those things that were “relevant” or “important.”
Full disclosure: I was at the N&O during some of the Soul City coverage, though I don’t recall having any part in it. I did work with Stith on other stories.
Later, when I worked for Governor Jim Hunt, I sometimes fielded calls from Stith about various scandals and scoundrels in the administration. He was always fair. He always got the facts right. And he always gave you a chance to tell your side.
Both Sitton and Stith won Pulitzer Prizes at the N&O. They made it a great paper. They deserved better.
So do readers.
Link to Pat Stith’s response: “I reported on Soul City in the 1970s. What the N&O said then is still true now.”