Predicting Post-Apocalypse Politics

When millions of Americans fear a virus, when millions lose their jobs overnight and when millions are told to stay home, you can bet we’re in for a political revolution. Or revolutions.

Look at what happened after 2008. We elected a black President. The Tea Party rose up. Republicans swept the 2010 elections and dominated North Carolina for a decade. The GOP went from the party of Bushes and John McCain to the party of Sarah Palin and Donald Trump.

And that was just an economic crisis. No pandemic. No stay-home orders.

Here are a few fearless forecasts for this time.

Young voters will be even more liberal.

The fallout from 2008 made Millennials, roughly aged 25-40, more liberal than their elders – more likely to support Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Medicare for All and free college. Now they’re getting hit again.

Gen Z “Zoomers,” under 25, are getting slammed. Classes are disrupted, jobs are gone and plans are on hold. They will never forget this.

They will want government to act.

But the 2020 electorate will skew old.

Old people vote; young people don’t. This will be especially true this year, as younger people struggle with the disruption. Poorer people will have a harder time voting. President Trump and Republicans will benefit.

The Democratic race will be prolonged – and maybe unpredictable.

Joe Biden can’t put away Bernie Sanders because primaries are being delayed. The convention is delayed. The crisis gives Sanders a platform to push his issues. Biden has no visible platform. Of course, this does cut down on his gaffes.

The Democratic Party has a history of suffering buyer’s remorse over presumptive nominees. Later primaries sometimes breathe new life into challengers. It happened to Jimmy Carter in 1976, Bill Clinton in 1992 and Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Already, you hear Democrats mooning over Andrew Cuomo.

The general election will be nasty, brutish and short.

For now, the race is on hold. But it’ll be back – meaner and uglier.

Democrats will say, as Nancy Pelosi did, that “President Trump fiddled while Americans died.” Trump will stoke hate of Democrats, bureaucrats, the media, “deep state” scientists and doomsday medical experts.

Andrew Yang may be a prophet.

Yang’s big idea in the Democratic presidential race was a “Freedom Dividend” of $1,000 a month, every month, to every American over 18. A form of the idea – one-time checks to some Americans – ended up in the $2 trillion rescue bill.

Once people get their checks, they may get to liking it. They’ll probably like the checks better than the corporate bailouts, loans and special tax breaks. And people who didn’t get checks will want them.

Congress’ actions will set off counter-reactions.

There was only one way to bring together Democrats and Republicans in Congress: spend $2 trillion. Everybody got something.

But everybody hates something the other side got. Democrats think big corporations, and maybe the Trump family, got too much from Republicans. Republicans think Democrats gave people incentives not to work and tried to reshape society along socialist lines.

Both sides got attack-ad ammunition.

Healthcare will be a big issue.


Pelosi’s Democrats won big in 2018 on health care, especially pre-existing conditions. Wait until people get the medical bills from the virus.

Both parties will have new faces in 2024.

Republicans will choose between Another Trump or Never Again Trump. Democrats will choose between this year’s also-rans, Biden’s running mate and some of the Governors now starring on TV.

The big question: Will it be morning again in America? Or a Depression?

“Welcome a Good Disaster”

When I worked for Governor Jim Hunt long ago, a couple of well-meaning management consultants wrote the Governor a memo with “Observations and Suggestions” for his administration.

It had consultant stuff like “Prepare a compilation of major accomplishments” and “Cement relationships and understandings with legislators.”

Then there was this: “Welcome a good disaster.”

Reporters got hold of the memo. They jumped on the “good disaster” line. The coverage was, well, a disaster. And not a good one.

I think of that memo when I see President Trump, Governor Roy Cooper and other elected officials standing in front of the cameras and wrestling with the coronavirus crisis.

The memo’s point was that disasters give leaders a chance to show they care and are in command. The unintended point was that you can also make a complete and utter fool of yourself.

In the early days of the coronavirus crisis, Democrats were sure that Trump was making a fool of himself. He downplayed it and said it would quickly go away. He lashed out at the media and his critics.

Rose Garden briefing

Then he changed course. He declared a national emergency. He said he knew all along it was a pandemic. While he still lashed out, he shifted into “Wartime President” mode.

Polls showed public approval for his performance rising, as high as 60 percent in a Gallup Poll. But both Presidents Bush had 90 percent positives after the first Iraq war and 9/11, respectively.

Then Trump said the lockdown should end by Easter. Now he says the end of April.

He knows his reelection hinges on how Americans feel he handles this crisis. (Remember back when we thought the election would be about impeachment?)

He’s on television every day, trying to shape public opinion. But public opinion here is extraordinarily volatile, because the crisis is life-and-death, it affects all of us and most all of us know next to nothing about it.

We spend hours every day online and on social media reading and hearing information and misinformation, claims and counterclaims, facts and falsehoods.

We don’t know what or who to believe. We don’t know how long it will go on. We don’t know how bad the economic damage will be.

We’re told it’s a choice between jobs and lives.

Governor Cooper faced that tough decision. Hospitals and doctors urged him to issue a statewide stay-home order. The Chamber of Commerce initially opposed it.

After what likely was a lot of negotiating, the Governor issued the order, and the Chamber’s president said it “supports this decision and is prepared to assist the business community in understanding how best to comply.”

Gov. Cooper: Stay home

On top of the serious stakes and the unsettling uncertainty, we the people are – as always – deeply divided.

Half of us believe President Trump is saving America, and half of us believe he’s wrecking it. Half believe Trump, and half believe Anthony Fauci or Andrew Cuomo.

Crises like this make and break Presidents.

The Civil War made Lincoln a virtual saint, after it nearly broke him. The Depression and World War II made FDR a legend, but he faced a deeply divided nation until Pearl Harbor. The Cuban Missile Crisis made JFK a hero, after the Bay of Pigs made him a goat.

The Depression broke Herbert Hoover. Vietnam broke LBJ. Katrina broke George W. Bush. The Iran hostage crisis made Jimmy Carter a winner against Ted Kennedy, but a loser against Ronald Reagan.

Early in a crisis, Americans tend to rally around their leaders. But they also tend to run out of patience.

And there’s no such thing as a good disaster.

Socialism Goes Viral

Coronavirus may not make us all sick, but it may make us all socialists.

Washington is suddenly awash in ideas that some might call socialism. Some ideas are coming from people who regularly denounce socialism.

The Trump Administration first floated a trillion-dollar-plus stimulus, including a bailout/parachute for airline companies and help for cruise lines, casinos and the hotel-hospitality industry. Then Republicans and Democrats in Congress battled over a recovery plan that could cost nearly $2 trillion.

One idea was direct cash payments to Americans. One of the first politicians to endorse it was Republican Senator Mitt Romney, who in the 2012 presidential race criticized the “47 percent of Americans…who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”

Mitt Romney

Now Romney sounds like Andrew Yang, whose signature issue in the Democratic presidential race was a $1,000-a-month Universal Basic Income for every person over 18.

In fairness, is this all socialism?

The dictionary defines socialism as “a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.”

Not even Bernie Sanders – who calls himself a “democratic socialist” and Republicans call a “radical socialist” – calls for public ownership of “the means of production, distribution, and exchange.”

Sanders does call – loudly and often – for Medicare For All. But that’s a single-payer system. The government wouldn’t own and run hospitals, doctors’ offices and pharmacies.

In truth, “socialism” is an epithet we use for things government does that we don’t like.

Conservative Republicans once called Social Security and Medicare socialism. Today Republicans denounce Democrats’ “radical socialist agenda” on issues like economic inequality, health care and climate change.

On the other side, liberals decry “corporate socialism,” which is what they call cash payments to farmers hurt by trade sanctions and tax cuts for billionaires and big corporations.

Rather than “socialism,” it’s probably more accurate to call all this “redistributionism.”

I’ll show you a real redistributionist.

In the early 1930s, Americans were suffering through a real Depression. Franklin D. Roosevelt came along with the New Deal. Republicans called it socialism or even “Bolshevism.”

But Huey P. Long, the “Kingfish,” the Governor of and (for a while, simultaneously) Senator from Louisiana, thought FDR didn’t go far enough. If an assassin hadn’t killed him, Long might have run against Roosevelt for President.

In his autobiography, “Every Man a King,” Long said his “Share the Wealth” program would mean “all taxes paid by the fortune holders at the top and none by the people at the bottom; the spreading of wealth among all the people and the breaking up of a system of Lords and Slaves in our economic life.”

Huey Long

Long said of the 1929 crash, “The wealth of the land was being tied up in the hands of a very few men….When the fortune-holders of America grew powerful enough that 1 percent of the people owned nearly everything, 99 percent of the people owned practically nothing, not even enough to pay their debts, a collapse was at hand.”

He added, “I have expected this crash for three years. It is here for many, many years. It cannot end until there is a redistribution of wealth.”

Huey would be right at home in America today.

Pandemic, Panic and Politics

Three big crises have hit America in the first 20 years of the 21st Century: 9/11, the 2008 financial crash and now the coronavirus/stock market crash. Each one has left us more divided and our politics more dysfunctional.

This time we’re so divided we can’t even agree if there’s a crisis. A Quinnipiac University poll, taken before President Trump declared a national emergency, found that “roughly six in 10 Republican voters nationwide said they were not especially concerned that the coronavirus would disrupt their lives. Two-thirds of Democratic voters said the opposite.”

Dick Armey, the former Republican congressman from Texas, tweeted that coronavirus “is the biggest hoax since climate change.”

Apparently, we all do fear a toilet paper crisis. Store shelves are – pardon the expression – wiped out.

Big events like this scramble politics.

The 9/11 attacks made Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg national political figures. Giuliani was the unpopular lame-duck mayor of New York. The crisis made him a hero and “America’s Mayor.” Today, Giuliani…well, you know.

Bloomberg was the Republican candidate for mayor that year. He was given little chance to win in the heavily Democratic city. The primary was on 9/11, but got postponed. Naturally, there was little media coverage of the ensuing campaign. Only Bloomberg had the money to advertise. He won narrowly. Today, Bloomberg…well, you know.

Nationally, 9/11 helped President George W. Bush and Republicans win big in 2002 and 2004. But Bush overreached, attacking Iraq and targeting Social Security. He and the GOP got a “thumping” in 2006. Democrats won the House and Senate for the first time since 1994.

The September 2008 economic crisis helped elect Barack Obama. Surprisingly, the freshman Senator looked cooler and more in command than John McCain.

Republicans bitterly opposed Obama’s economic stimulus plan. Then he went after health care reform. That led to the Tea Party, the 2010 Republican landslide and, ultimately, to President Trump.

Now Trump is squarely in the crisis crosshairs. He’ll be there for the duration.

Most voters long ago made up their minds for or against him. But the switch of a few percentage points in a few key states, like North Carolina, can make all the difference in November.

Voters use crises like this to make judgments about their leaders. It’s one of the few times politicians aren’t seen in scripted, tightly controlled, made-for-TV events. That’s why debates are so important in presidential races.

Times like this open a window into politicians’ competence, compassion and character – or lack thereof.

Voters are watching closely. They’re judging. Not just Trump, but also Governors like Roy Cooper who are suddenly thrust in front of the cameras and into the front lines.

The crisis contributed to the swift and sudden coalescing of Democrats behind Joe Biden.

Bernie Sanders said he would bring out a surge of new voters. He did, but they weren’t his voters. They were African-Americans, moderates and people over 45. In unsettled and unsettling times, they turned to the candidate they viewed as the most tried, trusted and tested: Biden.

Forget the theorizing about why Elizabeth Warren didn’t win, why Pete Buttigieg fell short, why Cory Booker didn’t catch on, and on and on. It’s simply about who Democrats think can beat Trump and handle a crisis.

This year’s version of March Madness will have a big impact in November. But we still have seven long months to go before the election. And what October Surprise or Halloween Horror might await us?

Super Tuesday Was Super for Moderate NC Democrats

Moderate Democrats in North Carolina think Super Tuesday gave them the best of two worlds: Joe Biden’s candidacy and Mike Bloomberg’s money.

They’re happy because Biden is heavily favored to win the nomination now. They’re also happy because Bloomberg says that, even though he’s out of the race, he’ll spend heavily to beat President Trump and help Democrats in six swing states, including North Carolina.

This is how moderate Southern Democrats hoped Super Tuesday would work when they devised it back in 1988 – coincidentally, the first time Biden ran for President.

Jim Clyburn and Biden

In the weeks before this year’s Super Tuesday, there was palpable gloom among North Carolina’s moderate Democrats – the “Mods.” Trump’s impeachment acquittal, while expected, was deflating. Bernie Sanders’ emergence as the frontrunner was terrifying.

The Mods were split mainly between Biden and Bloomberg. Bloomberg impressed a lot of them with his “I can beat Trump” message. And yes, his money.

Some Mods feared that Biden and Bloomberg would split the centrist vote and Sanders would win big on Super Tuesday. Then he’d be unstoppable.

They didn’t think Sanders would lose North Carolina in November by McGovern- or Mondale-like 30-point margins. The electorate has changed. But the difference between the presidential candidate losing by three points or six points could have a huge impact on the races for Governor, U.S. Senate, legislature and down the ballot.

A number to remember: Trump beat Hillary Clinton here by just under four points in 2016, and Governor Cooper barely edged Pat McCrory.

Anxious Mods began pushing like-minded Democrats to unite behind Biden. Others cautioned that Democrats could very much use Bloomberg’s formidable campaign infrastructure this fall. And, yes, his money. They didn’t want to alienate Bloomberg by coming out publicly against him.

Behind the scenes, there was much jostling, jockeying and jawboning.

In the end, South Carolina solved the problem. Yes, all you Clemson- and Gamecock-haters – the state that Robert E. Lee supposedly said is “too small to be its own nation, but too big to be an insane asylum.”

Biden came out of that primary like he was shot from a cannon. Specifically, the Jim Clyburn cannon.

If not for early voting, Biden would have won Super Tuesday even bigger – here and from Texas to Virginia to Massachusetts to Minnesota.

Suddenly, other candidates were dropping out, and Biden was the frontrunner. Bloomberg withdrew, but he promised to deploy his army of operatives and organizers – and, yes, his money and his ads – in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Florida in November.

Which brings us back to 1988. Super Tuesday was engineered that year by white Southern Democrats who wanted no repeat of Walter Mondale’s landslide loss in 1984. Their candidate was Al Gore.

It didn’t work. Gore and Jesse Jackson split the Southern states. Michael Dukakis won the nomination and lost the election.

Super Tuesday helped Bill Clinton in 1992, after a string of losses in early states.

In 2008, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton split the Super Tuesday states. In 2016, Clinton won more states and delegates on Super Tuesday than Sanders, but didn’t put him away.

This year, largely thanks to African-Americans, Super Tuesday worked just super for the Mods.

Correction: Last week, I incorrectly said some polls in South Carolina had shown a three-way tie between Biden, Sanders and Bloomberg. Bloomberg wasn’t on the ballot there. I meant Tom Steyer. Remember him?

What a Ride! But Wait – There’s More!

Joe Biden has had some tough breaks in life, so maybe it’s karma that, for two weeks, he was the luckiest man in the history of American politics.

Mike Bloomberg may be the unluckiest. But, hey, he’s made $60 billion in his life.

It started the night of Bloomberg’s first debate, Wednesday, February 19. I remember because I didn’t watch. I went to see my Wolfpack beat Duke. (Yes, Duke won the rematch. But we beat them by 22, and they beat us by only 19.)

During the game, somebody texted me that Elizabeth Warren was eviscerating Bloomberg. She turned into a heat-seeking, Bloomberg-blasting guided missile. He never recovered.

Then, on Saturday, Bernie Sanders overwhelmingly won the Nevada caucuses. Suddenly, he seemed poised to put the race away on Super Tuesday. Moderate Democrats panicked.

Then the coronavirus exploded. Americans panicked. President Trump’s response panicked his critics. The stock market panicked and took a scary, sickening dive. And kept diving.

Then, exactly one week after the debate, came James Clyburn. The South Carolina Congressman’s eloquent, emotional endorsement electrified Biden’s campaign. South Carolina turned into a rout. Remarkably, nearly half the voters there said Clyburn’s endorsement was an important factor in their choice.

A tip of the hat to Tom Jensen at Public Policy Polling in Raleigh. When other polls said Biden, Sanders and Bloomberg were tied in South Carolina, Jensen said Biden might win by 20 points or more.

He won by nearly 30, and a stampede of endorsements began. Then came Super Tuesday.

This is Biden’s third race for President in 32 years – he ran in 1988 and 2008 – but he had never won a primary. Then he won 11 in four days.

It was an extraordinary political comeback. One day he was being pushed to withdraw; the next day, his opponents were withdrawing and endorsing him.

But hold on. The talking and tweeting heads who prematurely buried Biden are now prematurely crowning him.

Sanders is still a formidable foe. He raised a remarkable $46 million in February, way more than Biden has ever raised. Sanders has a committed army of true believers. His is no ordinary campaign; it’s a crusade.

James Carville argued on MSNBC Tuesday night that Sanders should get out of the race. James is a great arguer. I’ve known him since 1984, back before he was famous. But nobody can convince Sanders to get out.

If you watched both Sanders and Biden speak Tuesday night, regardless of how you feel about each one, you saw that Sanders’ speech was more strategically effective. He made his case against Biden – and against the political, financial and media establishment. Biden just shouted about how good it was to come back and win.

That’s understandable. But Sanders can say now what his opponents would say if he was the front-runner: there’s a long way to go, there are a lot of states still to vote and anything can happen.

Sanders may regret one thing he’s said: that a candidate who gets a plurality of delegates, but not a majority, should still get the nomination.

Politics, like basketball, is a game of runs. A steal and breakaway dunk can light up the crowd and ignite a comeback. Conversely, a turnover can beget more turnovers – and a loss.

This game isn’t even to halftime yet.

NC is a Target for Information and Disinformation

For weeks before Tuesday’s primary, North Carolina was flooded with political information, misinformation and disinformation.

You ain’t seen nothing yet. Wait ‘til the fall.

When you’re a purple, swing state, you’re everybody’s target. You’re a guinea pig for whatever new twist, trick or technology some communications genius – or evil genius – develops.

Politics is a fast adapter. Especially Presidential campaigns. Whenever a communications innovation shows promise, somebody’s campaign tries it. The candidates and campaigns that move fastest go farthest.

Franklin D. Roosevelt mastered radio with his rich, reassuring voice. John F. Kennedy won on TV when he looked cool and Richard Nixon looked shifty. Nixon won when Roger Ailes stage-managed his TV town halls. Ronald Reagan mastered movie-star stagecraft. George H.W. Bush, for all his patrician manner, won thanks to race-baiting negative ads. Bill Clinton played his saxophone on late-night TV and answered boxers-or-briefs on MTV. Barack Obama’s campaign mastered online organizing. Donald Trump’s tweets overwhelm the news cycle.

What will it be this year?

Mike Bloomberg introduced us to flood-the-zone TV and online ads. So did Tom Steyer, to a lesser extent; it didn’t work for him.

Pete Buttigieg turbocharged his campaign early by accepting any invitation to any TV talk show anytime. He didn’t last.

Seen a Bloomberg ad?

Elizabeth Warren surged last year with long selfie lines and personal calls to donors.

Bernie Sanders has staying power thanks to his online army, a formidable small-dollar fundraising machine.

In the U.S. Senate race, a super-PAC backed by Mitch McConnell meddled in the Democratic primary to help Erica Smith. The group helped Smith not just by saying she supports Medicare For All and the Green New Deal, but by telling Democrats she’s African-American. Smith didn’t have much money to deliver her own message.

Cal Cunningham got his own boost from a Democratic super-PAC, VoteVets, that’s close to Chuck Schumer. Cunningham’s campaign ran ads countering the pro-Smith super-PAC. So did a group called Carolina Blue, which presumably is not about UNC basketball.

Then there are misinformation and disinformation campaigns.

Facebook took down a pro-Trump fake news site called “North Carolina Breaking News” that was posting bogus stories, one of them in Russian.

WRAL reported that a progressive group, Piedmont Rising, ran an ad that looked like news criticizing Senator Thom Tillis on health care.

Then there’s whatever the Russians are doing.

President Trump got mad when the nation’s intelligence agencies reported that Russia is again trying to influence our elections. But the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is co-chaired by North Carolina’s Republican Senator Richard Burr, reported in October that Russian trolls “sought to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election by harming Hillary Clinton’s chances of success and supporting Donald Trump at the direction of the Kremlin.”

Politics has always been bare-knuckled in North Carolina. Tough competition fueled innovation.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Senator Jesse Helms’ National Congressional Club pioneered direct-mail fundraising and negative TV ads. That’s how they won the 1980 and 1984 U.S. Senate races, defeating incumbent Robert Morgan and Governor Jim Hunt.

Democrats learned a hard lesson, and Hunt won governor’s races against Jim Gardner in 1992 and Robin Hayes in 1996. John Edwards unseated Senator Lauch Faircloth in 1998.

Dirty tricks go way back here. In 1950, racist flyers and ads – “White People Wake Up!” – helped Willis Smith beat Frank Porter Graham in a historic U.S. Senate race. Graham’s followers learned how to fight back, and Terry Sanford beat I. Beverly Lake in 1960.

Tom Ellis, Jesse Helms’ political godfather, used to say, “Politics ain’t beanbag.” It certainly ain’t in North Carolina this year.