In Praise of Inside Players

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

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

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

Tony Rand

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

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

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

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

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

His campaign never recovered.

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

Bob Jordan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unsettled Times, Unsettled Politics

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Then there’s the predictable unpredictability of presidential campaigns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Covid-19 Response Boosts Cooper

Like many Governors, Roy Cooper gets good poll ratings for handling the Covid-19 crisis. Unlike most other Governors, Cooper is running for reelection this year.

Polls on opposite ideological poles – Public Policy Polling on the left and Civitas on the right – say that North Carolinians strongly approve of Cooper’s performance. His numbers are much better than President Trump’s.

The two polls agree that Cooper has opened up a big lead against Lt. Gov. Dan Forest in the Governor’s race: 50-36 in PPP and 50-33 in Civitas.

Both polls also found little public support for the “ReopenNC” protests.

PPP said last week that North Carolinians approve of Cooper’s handling of the crisis by a 62-22 margin. In contrast, only 46 percent approve of Trump’s performance, and 49 percent disapprove.

PPP reported that governors in three other swing states also got good approve/disapprove ratings: 57-37 in Michigan, 59-29 in Pennsylvania and 53-37 in Wisconsin.

The Civitas poll, taken earlier in April, was better for Trump, but even better for Cooper. North Carolinians approved of Trump’s handling of the crisis by 57-40, but they approved of Cooper’s performance by 84-11.

On the reopening issue, PPP said: “Only 19 percent of voters think social distancing measures should be relaxed, with 54 percent believing that the current policies are correct and 26 percent supporting more aggressive measures than the ones already in place.”

A national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 58 percent of Americans are more concerned about a premature reopening than about harm to the economy; 32 percent are more worried about the economy.

Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who helped conduct the poll, called the results a “powerful signal” that the country is not ready to reopen now.

Another poll, by Gallup, found that only 20 percent of Americans would immediately return to normal activity if restrictions were lifted; 71 percent would wait and see what happens.

As always, polls can change. Unlike a hurricane or ice storm, this crisis will last weeks and months. The virus could go away, or flare up again. The economy could recover quickly, or sink deeper.

For now, it looks like Governor Cooper’s response has increased his reelection prospects.

Crises often help governors politically. Governors can act, and they can command the cameras. Political news gets blocked out. People want politicians to work together on the problem, not fight with each other.

North Carolina has seen this movie before.

The first time was way back in 1955. Luther Hodges, elected lieutenant governor in 1952, had become Governor when William B. Umstead died. Hodges was getting ready to run for a full term on his own when three hurricanes hit the state. Hodges donned rain gear and headed for the coast to survey damage. Hugh Morton (of Grandfather Mountain fame) took photos and shipped them to newspapers across the state. Hodges won election easily.

In 1996, Governor Jim Hunt was running for his fourth term against then-state Rep. Robin Hayes. In early September, Hurricane Fran slammed the state. Suddenly, nobody cared about the campaign. Governor Hunt, always a take-charge executive, dominated the news for weeks. By October, the race was over.

In 2016, Governor Pat McCrory was trailing Roy Cooper in the Governor’s race. Then Hurricane Matthew hit in October. Suddenly, McCrory was on TV and in command. He got a boost in polls, and he nearly beat Cooper.

McCrory’s admonition then is apt now: “Don’t put on your stupid hat.”

Trump’s Trump Card

The virus has taken away President Trump’s biggest reelection weapon. But he has a big weapon left, and he’s wielding it relentlessly.

Gone is his economic message: “You’ve never had it so good, the stock market has never been so high, and unemployment has never been so low.”

But Trump hasn’t lost the weapon that got him elected and could get him reelected: his ability to divide and conquer.

That weapon is super-charged by the President’s willingness, eagerness and ability to dominate the public debate. He has turned his daily White House briefings into the most powerful of bully pulpits.

But therein lies a risk. For Trump can – and has – hurt himself as much as he helps himself in the briefings. Staying at a podium for more than an hour is like staying at a bar past midnight: Not much good can happen.

Trump reminds me of North Carolina’s Senator Jesse Helms. I still have scars from Governor Jim Hunt’s unsuccessful campaign against Helms for Senate in 1984. That race taught me some hard lessons about politics.

Helms’ team approached the race very differently from us. Hunt was a popular Governor, while Helms was controversial and unpopular. We thought that gave us an edge.

But the Helms campaign didn’t try to make him more popular than Hunt. They didn’t think that was possible, I later learned. So, they flipped the script.

Their goal was to make Hunt more unpopular than Helms.

They did a good job. They started running negative ads against Hunt 18 months before the election. They never stopped.

Much like Trump does to his opponents today, they tied Hunt to people and groups who were unpopular with a lot of North Carolina voters: Jesse Jackson and other civil rights leaders, Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale, abortion-rights supporters, labor unions and what Helms called “the homosexual lobby.”

This same strategy is Trump’s trump card, if you will. He played it against Hillary Clinton. He’ll play it against Joe Biden.

A Republican political consultant once explained to me the ironclad hold that Trump has on his famous base: “He’s fighting the people they hate.”

That’s why Trump constantly picks fights. He fights with Democrats in Congress, with bureaucrats in Washington and with politicians of both parties.
At his virus briefings, he picks fights with reporters, with governors and with his own public health experts.

He picks a fight with China by calling it the “Chinese virus.” He picks fights with the World Health Organization. He picks fights with his own staff, Cabinet and military commanders.

The day he announced his campaign for President, he picked a fight with Mexico and immigrants. He picked fights with John McCain and a Gold Star family. He picked fights with his Republican primary opponents – nasty, personal fights.

He’s a fighter. His base loves that. They love him for fighting, and they hate the people he fights.

But his greatest strength can also be his greatest weakness. Trump is President at a time when the nation is facing the greatest crisis in a generation.

It’s a double whammy: thousands of people are dying and getting sick, and millions of people are losing their jobs and businesses.

Ultimately, President Trump will face the voters’ judgment on how he has responded and on how he acts from here out. This election was always going to be a referendum on Trump. Now it’s even more so.

Voters know he’s good at fighting his enemies. They’ll judge how good he is at fighting for the country.

Weighing Lives Against Livelihoods

The battle over the coronavirus shutdown was bitter, divisive and partisan. Already, the battle over opening back up and going back out is bitter, divisive and partisan.

Even in a national emergency, even facing a public health disaster and an economic disaster, we seem incapable of pulling together.

The partisan split has been there from the beginning. President Trump resisted a shutdown, then accepted it reluctantly and impatiently.

Democratic governors were quicker than Republicans to order people to stay home. Democratic-voting cities and counties moved quicker than those leaning Republican.

That’s partly because Democratic states and counties are more urban, more densely populated and more likely to have infections.

Republican areas were more likely to believe dismissals of the virus early on from Trump, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the conservative information ecosystem.

North Carolina, always a battleground, is split. While customers wore gloves and masks to grocery stores in Raleigh, a friend said people in Carteret County mocked her when she wore surgical gloves to the store.

Governor Roy Cooper has to balance the competing interests of public health versus economic health. Doctors, hospitals and public health leaders pushed for a shutdown; the Chamber of Commerce resisted.

John Hood, president of North Carolina’s conservative John W. Pope Foundation, wrote a column headlined, “Shelter in place isn’t sustainable.”

Hood said, “Our government hasn’t just shut down businesses (some potentially for good), thrown hundreds of thousands out of work, and disrupted the daily lives of millions of North Carolinians with no clearly articulated standard for when the dictates will be lifted. Our government has also suspended our basic liberties as citizens of a free society.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, the Republican nominee for Governor, questioned Governor Cooper’s order that closed bars and restaurants starting St. Patrick’s Day. Forest said the Council of State, which is mostly Republicans, should have been consulted. None of the Council of State members seemed keen on wading into the fight. Forest backed away.

Republican legislative leaders have been circumspect so far. But the legislature returns to Raleigh April 28. The political distancing will be greater than the social distancing. There likely will be battles over the budget, including helping the unemployed, helping businesses and meeting health care needs.

There will be uncertainty about state revenues. Teachers and state employees may go another year without pay raises. Governor Cooper will say Medicaid expansion is needed more than ever, and Republicans will resist.

As April gives way to May, the pressure will come to loosen stay-home orders and let businesses reopen. The push has begun already.

The economic carnage – 16 million Americans lost their jobs in just three weeks, and one estimate says one-fourth of the nation’s restaurants could go out of business – will bolster arguments that the shutdowns aren’t sustainable. Going back to business as usual, though, risks people’s lives.

These are not easy decisions to make. They’re being made, mostly, by Governors and other elected and appointed state and local leaders. They are, literally, life and death decisions.

Do we let restaurants reopen so they can stay in business and so their employees can pay for rent, food and child care? If we do, how many people could get sick and die because of that decision?

If ever there was a time America needs leaders – and advocates on both sides – to rise above simplistic answers, self-righteousness and selfish partisanship, this is it.

These next few weeks will tell us a lot. We’ll see who rises to the moment. And who doesn’t.

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?