Electing Opposites

If Joe Biden wins, it will continue the great American tradition of electing a new President who is the exact opposite of the last one.

Watching Biden and President Trump debate – or their interviews on 60 Minutes – was like watching beings from two planets.

They’re both white males in their 70s. Otherwise, everything about them is opposite.

Even their complexions and coloring are opposite. Trump’s face has a dark red hue; Biden is pale. Biden’s hair is white; Trump’s is described on Google as “flaxen.”

Their facial expressions are opposite. Trump tends to be angry, sometimes snarling; his grins fade fast. Biden smiles more and flashes his white choppers; his anger takes an injured, indignant tone.

They talk different. Trump is bombastic and aggressive; Biden’s stammer makes him more hesitant. Trump fires off verbal broadsides; Biden expounds at length and sometimes gets lost in the details.

If they were in your family, Trump would be your opinionated uncle and Biden, your indulgent grandfather.

Their political personas are opposites.

To his supporters, Trump is the angry avenging angel, out to end what he called in his Inaugural Address “this American carnage.” To his supporters, Biden is the soothing, empathetic figure, eager to gather Americans in a group hug.

One reason for Trump’s reelection troubles is his aggressive style. He’s always in your face, on Twitter and on the news. Some people just feel worn out by him.

Biden has a more soothing, even soporific, style. Even some Democrats find him boring, but they want to turn down the volume from the White House. 

Their life experiences are opposite. Trump is a showy, often-overextended businessman. Biden has been in government most of his life. Trump’s father was rich; Biden’s family struggled financially. Trump is the consummate political outsider; Biden, the consummate insider.

The contrast is no accident. One reason Biden came back from the political dead – remember, he was written off as late as last February – is that he presents such a clear alternative to Trump.

From the beginning, Americans have made a habit of trading in one model of President for a totally different model. As early as 1800, the first real contested election, we switched from New England patrician John Adams to Virginia slaveowner Thomas Jefferson. We haven’t stopped trading in the old model for a new one since.

In 1932, we traded in grim, dour Herbert Hoover for jaunty, confident FDR.

In 1960, we went from aging Ike to youthful JFK.

In 1976, we went from Richard Nixon and Watergate to Sunday School-teaching, “I’ll never lie to you” Jimmy Carter.

In 1980, we traded in a vacillating Carter for the resolute Ronald Reagan.

After eight years of Reagan, even his own Vice President, George W.H. Bush, promised to be “kinder and gentler.”

In 1992, Bush seemed out of touch with everyday Americans. Bill Clinton bit his lip and felt our pain.

In 2000, both Al Gore and George W. Bush presented a family-man contrast to Clinton’s scandals.

In 2008, we exchanged W’s from-the-gut style and tangled syntax with Obama’s cerebral cool and soaring oratory.

In 2016, we went from Obama to Trump.

If we bought cars like we pick Presidents, we’d have a family sedan for four years, then trade it in for a flashy sports car. Or we’d go from a Prius to a pickup truck.

This year, will we stick with the gold-plated Cadillac with flashy trim – or go for the Buick that dreams of being a Camaro?

The Election May Not Be Over Election Night

Voters and media alike, beware: We may not know the winners next Tuesday night. We may not know until all eligible absentee ballots are counted days later.

Voters should stay tuned, and media outlets should stay the temptation to “call” elections on Election Night. 

Why? Because the coronavirus means more people are voting by mail, and because disproportionately more Democrats than Republicans appear to be voting by mail.

The upshot: President Trump and other Republicans may be ahead Election Night, or even declare victory, but end up losing.

This is a recipe for discord, dissension and disruption.

A new study says North Carolina is one of nine states where this “blue shift” could be big enough to change results. As things stand now in our state, absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day and received through November 12 will be counted. If races are close and if thousands of absentee ballots come in late, we may not know the winners until mid-November.

(A reminder: absentee ballots and mail-in ballots are the same thing.)

This scenario is scarier than any October Surprise or Halloween Horror. We’re already at each other’s throats over the election. President Trump has told rallies all over the country – with no basis in fact – that mail-in ballots are crooked. Many Democrats believe Trump and Republicans can win only by voter suppression and cheating.

Covid-19 has upended our lives since March. Now the pandemic might upend our lives, our elections and our nation’s stability in November and December.

As one Democratic strategist said, “Trump and his supporters are going to scream if it looks like he’s going to win on election night, but gradually loses as mail ballots are counted.”

He added, “The media is only making a half-hearted effort to make people aware this is likely to happen.”

North Carolina experienced something like this four years ago. Then-Governor Pat McCrory led now-Governor Roy Cooper most of Election Night 2016. Finally, late at night, the 90,000 votes from heavily Democratic Durham County came in. Cooper edged ahead. 

McCrory and Republicans howled. They demanded a recount. They claimed fraud in Durham. McCrory didn’t concede for weeks, until it became clear he had lost by just over 10,000 votes out of 4.6 million cast.

McCrory concession video, December 2016

The Washington Post published an analysis of the election-shift scenario by a group called the Covid-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public’s Policy Preferences Across States, which surveys Americans on attitudes and behaviors related to the coronavirus pandemic: 

“(G)iven the pandemic, many more voters than usual are expected to cast their ballots by mail in the 2020 general election….If in-person ballots are disproportionately cast by Republicans and mail-in ballots disproportionately cast by Democrats, some states’ results may undergo a ‘blue shift’ — shifting further toward the Democratic candidate over time.”

Along with North Carolina, the states where the shift could be significant are Alaska, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin. 

All nine have two things in common: First, they’re competitive. Second, they don’t process all mailed-in ballots before Election Day, or they accept ballots that arrive late but are postmarked by Election Day. Several are key battlegrounds in the presidential race.

The consortium concluded:

“Given the tensions surrounding this election, journalists, pundits and voters alike may wish to keep in mind that if a candidate declares victory on election night, that lead may evaporate as more votes are counted.”

It won’t be over until all the votes are counted.

Link to Washington Post article: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/10/20/these-9-swing-states-will-see-biggest-blue-shift-ballots-are-counted-after-election/

Jim Hunt Likes Debates

My former boss, Governor Jim Hunt, takes issue with my blog “Do Away with Debates.”

He called to say, “We need to have joint appearances, where people get to compare the candidates – side by side.” 

He added, “Of course, then you’ve got to have the power in a moderator to handle it, cut them off, cut them slam off. It can be done, so we can see them and see how they react.”

Governor Hunt knows something about debates. He went toe-to-toe and blow-for-blow with Senator Jesse Helms in four debates in 1984 that were the political equivalent of Ali-Frazier heavyweight fights.

The 1984 Senate race for long, hard-fought and expensive. The debates riveted voters’ attention.

To negotiate debate rules, Governor Hunt appointed his long-time friend Phil Carlton, a former state Supreme Court Justice, with me as the junior partner. Helms picked the late Tom Ellis, his political godfather, and Carter Wrenn.

When the four of us met with representatives of the N.C. Broadcasters Association, there was no love lost in the room. As Carter said in a Spectrum News podcast he and I did recently, “We looked across the table and saw devils.”

So did we.

But a funny thing happened as the talks went on. The broadcasters wanted a format that highlighted their on-camera talent. The two campaigns wanted more free-flowing faceoffs that turned the candidates loose.

Gradually, the “devils” in both campaigns found we agreed with each other, not the broadcasters.

We invited the broadcasters to step outside. The four of us quickly agreed on rules. The candidates could even ask each other questions. The broadcasters weren’t happy, but they had no choice.

The debates were rock-‘em, sock-‘em affairs. Hunt and Helms were tough, experienced candidates. They knew the issues, had strong disagreements and relished the chance to confront each other.

First Hunt-Helms debate

But they didn’t interrupt each other, or the moderators.  

After Carter Wrenn and I later became good friends, he told me that Hunt surprised Helms and his campaign in the first debate. The Governor was quicker, tougher and more aggressive than they expected.

Senator Helms was deflated afterward. Carter was primed to lay into him for his passive performance. But Helms disarmed him; he said he was so disappointed in himself that he hated going home and facing his wife.

Helms went to work and got better. For the next debate, he prepared a set of folders on each issue and took them to the stage. Whenever an issue came up, Helms pulled out a folder with the key points he wanted to make.

There were some tense and dramatic moments.

During an exchange over veterans’ benefits, Helms suddenly asked, “And what war did you fight in, Jim?” An angry Hunt shot back, “I don’t like you questioning my patriotism.”

(An aside: Helms spent World War II safely stateside as a Navy recruiting officer. Years later, somebody mentioned to then-Senator Terry Sanford that he and Helms were always on opposite sides of issues. Sanford, who was wounded in combat and decorated for bravery in Europe, said, “Yep, and in World War II we were on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean.”)

Helms brought up the national holiday for Martin Luther King Jr., which he opposed and filibustered against on the Senate floor:

“Now, which is more important to you, Governor, getting yourself elected with the enormous black vote, or protecting the Constitution and the people of North Carolina.”

Hunt was ready:

“Jesse, which is most important to you, getting reelected or having the people of this state upset and fighting and set at odds against each other?…This is 1984. This is a progressive state. We’re not going back now and open those old wounds.”

It was a great moment, but Hunt paid a price. A poll we commissioned after the election showed an almost 100% correlation between voters’ opinions on the King holiday and how they voted. Hunt narrowly lost the election, even though he ran far ahead of Walter Mondale, who was getting swamped by Ronald Reagan.

Carter says their campaigns’ polls showed Hunt won the first three debates and the fourth was a tie.

There’s another reason to heed Governor Hunt on debates. When he was Lieutenant Governor from 1973 to 1977, he presided over the state Senate. He never left the podium, because he knew some Senators would try to take away his power to appoint committees. (They finally did that in 1989.)

From the chair, Hunt had the chance to watch floor debates: “I saw what works and what doesn’t.” And he used the gavel to keep order.

Accordingly, I amend my position on debates. Next time, have Jim Hunt moderate them.

Covid, Classrooms and Corporations: The Cooper-Forest Campaign

Covid dominates North Carolina’s Governor’s race, and it likely will determine the outcome. But there’s another big difference between the two candidates. It gets less attention, but matters more for the future. 

It’s an issue that North Carolina has debated for more than 60 years: What is the best way to build a better future – cut taxes or invest in public education?

As he runs for a second four-year term, Democratic Governor Roy Cooper frames the choice as “classrooms or corporations.” He says the Republican-majority legislature has passed tax cuts for big corporations and wealthy individuals at the expense of public education.

Republican Lt. Governor Dan Forest supports the legislature’s tax cuts. Like Republicans in the legislature, he supports vouchers and tax credits for parents who send their children to private schools.

This debate goes back to the 1950s. That’s when North Carolina emerged as an economic powerhouse, attracting industries from across the country and around the world.

Governor Luther Hodges (1954-1961), a retired textile executive, made his mark as an industry hunter. The state offered companies lower taxes as an inducement for locating factories here. Low taxes – along with less regulation, low wages and low unionization – became North Carolina’s calling card in corporate boardrooms.

But a competing philosophy emerged, championed by Governor Terry Sanford (1961-1965), the patron saint of North Carolina’s post-World War II progressives. 

Sanford said North Carolina should focus on better education as the best foundation for the future. As Governor, he prevailed on a reluctant legislature to levy a sales tax on food to pay for an ambitious education program.

Jonathan Yardley wrote of Sanford in The Washington Post in 1985:

“Teacher salaries went up 22 percent, a statewide system of community colleges was established, the North Carolina School of the Arts was created; the foundation was laid by Sanford for the more sophisticated and expensive educational improvements that may prove to be the chief legacy of the state’s most recent ex-governor, James B. Hunt Jr.”

Governor Cooper, like Governor Hunt (1977-1985 and 1993-2001) subscribes to the Sanford philosophy. So did Democratic Governor Mike Easley (2001-2009), who like Sanford passed a tax increase to fund education improvements. 

For decades, there was bipartisan support for what was called “North Carolina’s civic religion” of investing in public schools to promote economic development. Republican Governor Jim Holshouser (1973-1977) supported statewide kindergartens and big pay raises for teachers. Republican Governor Jim Martin (1985-1993) pushed for Reagan-like tax cuts in his first term but also supported the Basic Education Plan to boost public schools.

Because of a booming economy – and rising tax revenues – North Carolina could both cut taxes and spend more money on schools. When Republicans took the House in 1994, they and Governor Hunt agreed to pass big tax cuts. Then, in 1997, key Republicans supported Hunt’s billion-dollar-plus plans to raise teacher pay to the national average and expand the Smart Start early-childhood program.

The bipartisan consensus shattered after Republicans took both houses of the legislature in 2010. They focused on passing billions of dollars in corporate tax cuts, and education advocates say public schools have suffered.

The legislature also has directed money to private schools. That’s another echo of the 1950s, when private schools emerged as an alternative to integrated public schools. 

This election offers North Carolinians the clearest choice between these dueling philosophies since Sanford ran for Governor in 1960. Today’s headlines focus on Covid, health care, face masks and how fast to reopen schools and businesses in the pandemic. But the future may ride on the choice between classrooms and corporations.

2020 Isn’t 2016

I’m scheduled to talk about the election on WRAL’s “On the Record” with David Crabtree at 7:30 pm Saturday. The show will be available online after.

Too many people, on both sides politically, look at this year’s election through the lens of 2016. But viewing the future through the lens of the past obscures the present.

Democrats see Joe Biden leading the polls today, but vividly remember how stunned and sickened they were on election night 2016. They fear a replay.

President Trump’s supporters see the same polls and remember their joy and surprise four years ago. They relish a replay.

The fundamentals this year are very different from 2016.

This election is a referendum on Trump. 

2016 was a referendum on Hillary Clinton. She was essentially the incumbent. Trump was the newcomer and the challenger. Now he’s the incumbent. He has a record to defend.

That’s a perilous prospect amid a pandemic that has killed 215,000 Americans and infected the President and the White House and disrupted the lives of millions of Americans and caused an economic collapse that has hurt millions of people and thousands of businesses.

Bad economic times are bad for incumbents. See Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. And none of them presided over a pandemic.

In 1992, James Carville famously said, “It’s the economy, stupid.” This year, it’s the Covid, stupid.

Joe Biden is not Hillary Clinton.

Fair or not, Hillary (and Bill) Clinton had built up huge negatives after 25 years on the national stage. Fair or not, Hillary inherited the fallout from Bill’s faults and failings. Fair or not – and it’s not fair, but it’s a fact – Hillary suffered from sexism and misogyny.

Biden doesn’t have those negatives. He has a united party behind him, and Clinton didn’t. Democrats didn’t, as once looked possible, nominate a candidate who could easily be painted as a radical socialist.

Hillary also suffered one of the truly unfortunate – and unfair – bad breaks in the history of politics. FBI Director James Comey’s decision to announce he was reopening the investigation of her emails, just 11 days before the election, proved deadly.

Some 18 percent of voters then didn’t like Clinton or Trump. They broke for Trump three-to-one.

Clinton may have lost because the pundits said she was sure to win. How many people voted for Trump as a protest, expecting him to lose? It might have been just enough in an election that turned on a few thousand voters in a handful of states. Trump won the Presidency because he won Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania by just over 100,000 votes combined. 

There’s Trump fatigue.

People can get tired of anything. Even the most popular TV shows lose their audience after a while. Trump may have worn out his welcome.

He has governed like no President before him. He wields Twitter as a weapon. He attacks his enemies with a ruthlessness and recklessness not seen since Joe McCarthy. He calls them monsters and criminals who should be in jail. He’s unbound by the boundaries – on language, untruthfulness, invective and personal insults – that historically have governed presidential behavior.

He sows new controversy daily, even hourly. He reverses himself constantly. Last week, he torpedoed Covid stimulus talks in Congress. Then he did a U-turn and called on Congress to pass something big. 

Sometimes people get tired of chaos, combat and controversy. They want what Warren Harding called “normalcy.”

Is there a hidden vote, a “Silent Majority”?

Trump supporters say there was in 2016, and they say it will be there again this year. But for all the treasons listed above, there also could be a hidden anti-Trump vote.

This year, there seems nothing hidden or silent about Trump voters. They are loud. They proudly fly their Trump flags and hoist their Trump signs. They parade in boats, golf carts and pickup trucks.

But polls and early vote totals also show a wave of energy building against Trump. Some knowledgeable Democrats – and Republicans – sense a potential avalanche ahead.

Young voters seemed to be turned off by Trump and motivated to vote. Black voters appear highly motivated. Suburban women are breaking for Biden. Anti-Trump Republicans are vocal and visible.

Silent majorities can cut both ways.

What lies ahead?

Yes, Trump can still win. He’s close in key electoral states. For all the controversy he’s caused, he clearly has touched something deep in a significant share of the American people.

Part of it, undeniably, is racist – and contemptable. Part of it is anger toward “elites” – the media, liberals, government, the college-educated and “experts.” Part of it is a real concern about the direction of society, anxiety and fear about sweeping social, cultural and economic change. 

Whatever happens to Trump this election, that “anti” feeling will remain strong. A majority of voters may be sick and tired of Trump, but his voters still yearn to make America “great” again – whatever that means to them.

My prediction is that this will be a good election for Democrats. They will get the chance to show America a new governing philosophy, one different from past Democratic administrations. But they should not ignore or overlook the genuine – and justified – concerns of Americans who turned to Trump.

Biden says he’ll be a President for all of us. If he’s elected, he needs to keep that promise. America needs healing.

Do Away with Debates

Presidential debates are outdated. They’ve outlived their sell-by date. They should be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Covid-19 killed off this week’s scheduled presidential debate. Common sense says cancel them for all time. Sixty years after the Kennedy-Nixon debates, they no longer serve any useful purpose. In fact, debates are downright dangerous to democracy.

They hit bottom when the highlight of the vice-presidential debate was the fly on Mike Pence’s hair. 

In that first encounter of the 2024 cycle, Kamala Harris proved herself a formidable debater. Both she and Pence dodged questions. Pence was effective attacking Joe Biden and defending President Trump. But if the Trump-Pence ticket is losing women voters, why did Pence constantly interrupt and talk over the two women on stage?

Even the fly stopped after two minutes.

President Trump’s insults and interruptions made the first presidential debate painful to watch. His performance may have been as harmful to his political health as the virus was to his physical health. Polls showed him falling as far as 14 points behind Biden.

One report said Chris Christie (who was hospitalized for Covid) urged Trump to interrupt Biden; that apparently causes people who stutter to lose their train of thought.

Trump did throw Biden off stride. He threw moderator Chris Wallace off stride. And he may have turned off swing voters, especially those who like his policies but have concerns about his temperament.

Trump believes you win debates by dominating your opponents.

He might have done better with the opposite strategy: Let Biden talk. In 1988 and 2008, Biden’s runaway tongue derailed his presidential hopes. Many Democrats worried after the debate that Biden sometimes floundered when he had opportunities to articulate a clear and compelling message about what he would do as President. Trump’s interruptions actually obscured Biden’s stumbles.

Biden looked strong when he stood up to Trump. He scored when he looked into the camera and directly addressed Americans – about the pandemic and, especially, about his son Hunter’s battle with addiction. But at other times he showed the same weaknesses he had in the Democratic primary debates.

Because President Trump and many of his staffers were infected with Covid, the Commission on Presidential Debates wanted the candidates to be in separate studios this week. There’s precedent for that. In the third 1960 debate, Kennedy was in New York, Nixon was in Los Angeles and the moderator was in Chicago. 

Separate studios might make it easier to cut away from – or just cut off – a candidate who talks too much.

But, with this week’s faceoff canceled, let’s ask ourselves: What do debates have to do with being President?

What’s the benefit of thrusting candidates into gladiator-like, high-stakes, high-anxiety, do-or-die duels under the white-hot spotlight of national TV? Does their ability or inability to excel on that stage tell us anything about their ability to serve in public office?

Yes, we want to see candidates in a setting that forces them to be real. TV ads, photo ops and scripted speeches don’t do that. But we learn as much, if not more, by watching candidates answer real-time questions from real-life people in town-hall formats. 

Today’s debates are about theater, acting and performing on stage. They are reality TV. If we want a President who projects calm, confidence and command authority on TV, let’s give Lester Holt the job and be done with it.

Debates reward good looks, a glib tongue and a quick mind. Being President requires good judgment, sound character and thoughtful deliberation.

They’re not the same qualities. We need Presidents, not performers. We don’t need debates.

Family Fights Loom for Both Parties

This year’s campaign has exposed deep differences not only between Democrats and Republicans, but also within each party. After the election, both could have family fights. And family fights can get ugly. 

The Republicans’ divisions are bitter, and they’re over President Trump. Many long-time Republicans have spoken out against Trump and even endorsed Joe Biden.

Democrats are less publicly divided, because they’re so united against Trump. Just wait. The divisions between Biden-Obama-Clinton-Pelosi moderates and Sanders-Warren-AOC liberals will rise again.

In North Carolina, former Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr has been a vocal leader of anti-Trump Republicans. Former Republican Governor Jim Martin made scathing comments about Trump in a Charlotte Observer op-ed.

Martin criticized Trump for tweeting “his late-night demons,” called him “uncontrollably belligerent at the slightest provocation,” said “his verbal fireworks insult the intelligence of his supporters – I hope!” and added:

“His personal vendettas, his locker room disdain for women and minorities, his coarse attempts to bully anyone who disagrees, including our allies – these are not attributes of honorable leadership.”

But Trump’s personality isn’t the only thing dividing Republicans. They also face the rise of the racist, white-nationalist, anti-Semitic, QAnon, Proud Boys alt-right crowd. 

Ever since white conservatives started migrating to the Republican Party over race in the 1960s, Chamber of Commerce Republicans have gone along with – and won elections thanks to – hardliners on race like Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond. 

Can they live in the same house with the new crowd?

Senator Thom Tillis’ campaign reflects the Republican split. A big reason he has trailed Cal Cunningham in polls is that he hasn’t consolidated the support of Trump’s base. They haven’t trusted him since he split with Trump on a couple of issues last year.

Democrats’ divisions aren’t as bitter, but they’re deep.  Democrats are united on goals, but divided on means. They support racial, economic and social justice, but differ on how to get there and, specifically, on how big a role the federal government should play in getting there.

In 2016, supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders fought openly. This year, Democrats’ universal disdain for Trump – more accurately, their fear and loathing – obscure the policy differences that were evident during the Democratic primary debates.

Look at September’s Senate primary in Massachusetts, where Ed Markey beat Joe Kennedy III. A Kennedy had never lost in Massachusetts, but Markey harnessed progressive ideas and young progressives’ energy. He co-sponsored the Green New Deal bill with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She endorsed Markey. Speaker Nancy Pelosi endorsed Joe III. 

AOC and Ed Markey

The Green New Deal is the kind of issue where Democrats agree on big goals, but not on how far or how fast to go. There’s also health care, economic security, taxes, college debt, minimum wage, police reform and racial justice.

In the presidential debate, Biden distanced himself from what Trump called “the radical, socialist left.” Biden has positioned himself as a moderate, and he has made clear he intends to govern that way.

But if Biden wins and Democrats win both houses of Congress, the new President and his party will face a risk familiar to Democrats: scaring off centrists. That has happened to them three times in the last 50 years.

Young, aggressive liberals took over the party and nominated George McGovern in 1972. That led to the rise of the Republican Party, especially in the South, and eventually to President Ronald Reagan.

In 1992, Bill Clinton won the White House, and Democrats tried to push through Hillary Clinton’s health care reform. That led to the 1994 Republican sweep, Speaker Newt Gingrich and eventually to President George W. Bush.

Democrats came back in 2008, electing President Obama and winning Congress. Then they passed Obamacare. That led to the Republican sweep in 2010 and to where we are today, with gerrymandering and President Trump.

Both parties face fundamental questions about their future.

Will the Jim Martins and Bob Orrs regain control of the GOP? Or will the Trump base remain in control, led by someone like Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas or one of the Trump children?

If Democrats win the kind of sweep they sense is possible, will they govern in a way that keeps them in power or a way that quickly costs them power?

The answers could set the course of American politics for a generation or more.

History Shows How Incumbent Presidents Lose

Republicans this year might find alarming parallels to the only three incumbent Presidents to lose reelection in the last 100 years. All three were dragged down by persistent crises that dominated their final months. Twice, the Presidents suffered landslide losses that reshaped politics for decades.

The three were Herbert Hoover in 1932, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992. Both 1932 and 1980 were realignment elections.

All faced economic crises. Carter also had the Iran hostage crisis. In the end, voters concluded that all three failed to meet the challenge. Americans voted for new leadership.

For months, President Trump’s handling of Covid – and the economic damage – has hurt him in polls. When he was infected by the virus last week, as the campaign entered its final month, the pandemic again became the biggest issue. The anti-Trump Lincoln Project tweeted: “If he can’t protect himself, how can he protect the country?”

President Carter (who turned 96 last week) had bad timing too. His race against Ronald Reagan was close until the last weekend, the one-year anniversary of the hostage-taking. That dominated the news, Carter’s support collapsed, and he suffered a historic defeat.

Trump got a similar last-minute break in 2016. On the Friday 11 days before the election, the FBI reopened its investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails. That swayed many late-deciding voters.

Just two weeks ago, the Supreme Court fight dominated the news. Then came the debate. The focus shifted to Trump’s insults, his interruptions, his taxes and his stance on white supremacists. Now we’re back to Covid.

Downplaying a crisis can hurt an incumbent. During the Depression, Hoover said “the fundamental business of the country is on a sound and prosperous basis.” His vice president said prosperity was “just around the corner.” Last month, Trump said we’re “rounding the corner” on the pandemic.

President Carter didn’t downplay the hostage crisis. He suspended his campaign, hunkered down in the White House and focused day and night on the hostages. That helped him beat Ted Kennedy for the Democratic nomination. But, as time went on, Carter looked weak and helpless.

(Note: President Gerald Ford lost to Carter in 1976, but he was an unelected President.)

(Another note: Kennedy criticized Carter for not supporting national health insurance. That was a precursor to today’s debate over Medicare For All.)

Bush checks watch in 1992 debate

In 1992, President Bush looked out of touch and unconcerned with the economic recession’s impact on Americans. The perception crystallized in a televised town-hall debate when he snuck a glance at his watch.

Could 2020, like 1932 and 1980, bring a landslide and lasting realignment? FDR’s 1932 coalition lasted more than 30 years. The 1980 Republican sweep put politics on a conservative course that has lasted 40 years.

Last week, Democrats were growing hopeful that a blue wave might give them control of the White House, Senate and House – and big gains in North Carolina. Governor Roy Cooper was so confident of reelection he put up Facebook ads boosting Joe Biden. Cal Cunningham’s polls showed him leading Senator Thom Tillis by double digits.

Then came news that Tillis tested positive for Covid and Cunningham had exchanged text messages with a married woman.

Hang on. There’s still a month to go. 

Frankly Speaking: Frank Daniels Jr.

Frank Daniels Jr. has the right name. If he’s anything, he’s frank.

When he says something, it’s direct and to the point. With the bark off. And maybe with a profanity thrown in. You don’t have to guess what he’s thinking.

Maybe they’ll teach some of that at the new executive-in-residence program named in honor of Frank at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

It’s a richly deserved and fitting honor for a giant of North Carolina journalism.

Frank’s nephew David Woronoff, publisher of The Pilot in Southern Pines, said, “Everyone can use a Frank Jr. in their lives.” I’m lucky to have had Frank Jr in my life. I started my career at The News & Observer, where Frank was president and publisher from 1971-1996. 

Full disclosure: Frank is a member of the board of directors of New Day for NC, the nonprofit that publishes my blog and newspaper column. For about three years, until the Covid quarantine chased me home, I rented an office from him downtown. I had a chance to see and talk to him a lot, and sometimes he invited me to sit in when people came asking him for money.

He gives me frequent feedback on my posts, generally terse, one-line emails:

“Good column.”

On one about past elections: “Interesting column. I had forgotten most of the history.”

On one he wasn’t sure about: “Wonder if everybody agrees with you.”

On one he disagreed with: “Of course, I could be wrong.”

After we had been in lockdown: “Good column. Sure would be nice to be able to go out to eat.”

It reminded me of the advice David Woronoff said Frank gave him when he became publisher of the Pilot: “Don’t screw it up.” But Frank used an earthier four-letter word.

Frank also told him: “If you’re the smartest person here, we’ll fail.”

That is, a good leader isn’t afraid to hire smart people. That’s something else they should teach at the Journalism School – and in every management class.

Frank hired smart people at The News & Observer. Under him, the paper thrived financially and journalistically.

Whenever the subject of the Daniels family and the N&O comes up these days, there’s a reference to its white-supremacist past under founder Josephus Daniels, Frank’s grandfather.

That past is undeniable. Also undeniable is the vital role the N&O played for decades in promoting and bolstering North Carolina’s hard-earned progressive record – on race, education and economic development. The N&O also exposed generations of crooked politicians and corrupt officials.

That’s to Frank’s credit, too.

I have a vivid memory of Frank from when I worked at the N&O back in the 1970s. Every afternoon around 5, he would walk through the newsroom to Editor Claude Sitton’s office, where I assume Claude gave him a rundown on the next day’s paper.

The newsroom was always bedlam at 5 pm. Deadlines loomed. Editors shouted at reporters to finish their stories. Reporters cursed them back. Phones rang. Tempers frayed, and nerves frazzled.

One afternoon, as Frank walked through, a phone rang incessantly. Nobody answered it. Frank stopped and picked up the phone. It was the president of a local civic club, calling in a notice about an upcoming meeting.

Frank sat down at a vacant desk, rolled a piece of copy paper into the typewriter and took down the notice. He dropped it into the city editor’s in-basket and walked on to Claude’s office.

He didn’t screw it up, as I recall.

Bugs Bunny Always Wins Campaign Debates

Forty years in politics made me an expert on debates, whether I wanted to be or not.

I did endless hours of debate prep. I negotiated debate rules with broadcasters and opponents’ representatives. I sat in TV-studio debates for what seemed like an excruciating eternity. I did post-debate spin. I cleaned up after debate disasters. I celebrated when my candidates cleaned opponents’ clocks.

Debates cause candidates, consultants and staffers more angst and anxiety than anything else in a campaign. They are, as President George H.W. Bush once said, “Tension City.”

Take this week’s debate between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. Most people watching already know who they’re voting for. But those who are undecided – and those who aren’t sure whether they’ll vote at all – watch for something to make up their minds.

Sometimes it’s something a candidate says. But, in my experience, candidates and their advisers over-think, over-worry and over-rehearse what they say.

I see some candidates in a debate and know they have a bad case of too much debate prep. 

Here’s what happens. The candidate stands behind a podium in a mock debate setting. Somebody plays their opponent. He or she has immersed themselves in the opponents’ language, body language and likely lines of attack. Somebody plays moderator. Smarty-pants staffers come up with tough questions.

They start the video. They fire questions at the candidate. They interrupt him when he goes over the time limit. The “opponent” lays into him, relishing the chance to take down Mr. Big Shot.

When the hour is up, they review the video. The staffers and consultants bombard the poor candidate with advice and criticism. Some advice is good, some is bad and a lot is contradictory.

They turn the candidate into a basket case of nerves. He walks onto the debate stage and becomes a zombie. Viewers say, “Gee, he’s mighty stiff.”

I’m a believer in Jeff Greenfield’s rule of debates: “Bugs Bunny always beats Daffy Duck.” Greenfield, a longtime CNN commentator, once wrote:

“Bugs and Daffy represent polar opposites in how to deal with the world. Bugs is at ease, laid back, secure, confident. His lidded eyes and sly smile suggest a sense that he knows the way things work. He’s onto the cons of his adversaries….

“Daffy Duck, by contrast, is ever at war with a hostile world. He fumes, he clenches his fists, his eyes bulge, and his entire body tenses with fury. Daffy is constantly frustrated, sometimes by outside forces, sometimes by his own overwrought response to them.”

In other words, the winner in a debate is always the most comfortable person on stage. Think JFK and Nixon. Think Ronald Reagan (“there you go again”) and Jimmy Carter. Think Barack Obama, cool and cerebral, and Mitt Romney, stiff and smug.

Kennedy prepared for his first debate by taking a nap, then flipping through index cards of questions. His TV-savvy staff paid more attention to how he looked than what he said. He looked calm and confident; Nixon looked sweaty and shifty.

When you watch a debate, turn off the sound for a bit and just watch the candidates. Who looks most comfortable? Who seems most confident, most in command?

That’s your winner. Not who has the most perfectly rehearsed answers.

And if your candidate flops, no sweat. A consultant I know once clapped a nervous candidate on the back just before a debate and said, “Don’t worry. There’s no mistake you can make out there that we can’t fix with a few million dollars in TV ads.”