Will Democrats whiff their shot at the White House?

A Republican friend of mine was down in the dumps after the 2008 election. Democrats had won the White House, both houses of Congress and, in North Carolina, the U.S. Senate race, the Governor’s office (for the fifth straight election) and both houses of the legislature.

My friend feared for his party’s future. “Don’t worry,” I assured him. “We Democrats will screw it up.”

Sure enough, in 2010, Democrats suffered devastating defeats up and down the ballot.

I’m reminded of that experience today as Democrats celebrate polls showing President Trump’s approval ratings falling and support for his impeachment rising.

There are two big reasons Democrats shouldn’t get too cocky. The first is the economy. The second is the party’s uncertain search for a candidate who can beat Trump.

As James Carville said, it’s always the economy, stupid

Americans are upbeat, if anxious, about the economy. One poll suggests that Americans have more confidence in Trump’s ability to handle the economy than a Democrat’s.

An October 6-8 Internet Economist/YouGov poll of 1,500 people (including 1,241 registered voters) found that:

  • By 61-39, people say the news about the economy is positive.
  • While Trump’s overall approval rating is under water (43-49 negative), his handling of the economy gets a 47-42 positive rating.
  • If Trump is reelected, 33 percent think the economy will get better and 37, worse. That’s not great, but only 29 percent think the economy will get better if a Democrat wins; 39 percent say it will get worse.

Which Democrat can beat Trump?

Last week’s 12-candidate Democratic debate showed how split the party is on a presidential nominee. The big split is between moderates and progressives, and there are divisions over race and age.

Elizabeth Warren’s surge in the polls worries moderate Democrats. In the Economist/YouGov poll, 42 percent of people said Democrats are “too liberal.” Only 34 percent said Republicans are too conservative.

That’s why the moderates on the stage – Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg – targeted Warren. They said Medicare For All would cost too much, take away people’s insurance and scare away swing voters.

Front-runners at last week’s debate

Bernie Sanders might be over his heart attack, but he gave some Democrats a heart attack when he said out loud what Warren wouldn’t say: Taxes will go up to pay for Medicare for All, although he claimed that premiums, co-pays and, thus, total costs would go down.

Klobuchar and Buttigieg clearly think Joe Biden is fading, thanks to his shaky debate performances and the Hunter Biden questions. They calculate that the moderate lane to the nomination is opening up to an alternative. But the Democratic Party’s debate rules kept other moderates – Steve Bullock, Michael Bennett and John Delaney – off the stage.

Then there’s race. Barack Obama won the Presidency twice by turbocharging minority turnout. But neither Kamala Harris nor Cory Booker are winning strong support.

Obama also energized young people. Can a 70-year-old-plus nominee do that? At the other extreme, is America ready for a 37-year-old – and gay – President Pete?

Trump’s at his best one-on-one

Here’s what will likely happen now: The House will impeach Trump. The Senate will acquit him. Trump will claim victory. And he will end up in a head-to-head, WWE-style mudwrestling death match with one Democrat.

It won’t be Trump against “somebody else.” It will be Trump against somebody. He’ll do just what he did against Hillary Clinton in 2016: He won’t try to build up his numbers. He’ll try to tear down his opponent’s.

And Trump is good in that wrestling ring.

The unpredictability of impeachment

Somehow America got through nearly 200 years and impeached only one President: North Carolina’s own Andrew Johnson. Now we’re going through our third presidential impeachment in just 45 years.

We’ve just about normalized impeachment.

Three of the last nine Presidents have faced it – Nixon, Clinton and now Trump. Four more – Reagan, both Bushes and Obama – heard mutterings about it. The other two, Ford and Carter, maybe weren’t in office long enough to be impeached.

What can we learn from the Nixon and Clinton experiences?

Public opinion on impeachment can change fast – and dramatically

Since Democrats took over the U.S. House last November, they’ve fretted that impeaching Trump would backfire on them, like it did on Republicans who impeached Clinton in 1998.

But the polls have shifted. Several recently showed that public support for impeachment has grown.

Nixon leaves the White House

In 1972, Richard Nixon won reelection with one of the biggest landslides in history. Less than two years later, his standing with the public had fallen so far that he didn’t have enough votes in the Senate to be acquitted. Nixon resigned.

(One Senator who stood by Nixon to the end was North Carolina’s Jesse Helms, who had been elected in 1972.)

Public opinion can also swing against impeachment.

When Monicagate broke in 1998, it looked like Clinton would have to resign within days. But he hung on and fought back.

By the time the House voted, public opinion was against impeachment. The Senate acquitted him.

Impeachment will have a huge impact on 2020

In the 1998 mid-terms, Republicans lost big. Newt Gingrich, who bet the House on impeachment, lost his Speakership.

In the 1974 mid-terms, just three months after Nixon left office, Republicans were almost wiped out. And the impact went way beyond Congress.

Take North Carolina. 1972 had been a breakthrough year for Republicans. For the first time in the 20th Century, they won races for Governor and U.S. Senate. They made big gains in the legislature.

After 1974, there were only 10 Republicans left in the 120-member House – and, in the 50-member Senate, just one lonely Republican.

2020 will be different from 1974 and 1998 in one big way. Nixon and Clinton were in their second terms when they were impeached. This time, barring resignation or removal, President Trump will be running for reelection.

The White House and both houses of Congress will be at stake. And the state legislatures elected in 2020 will control congressional and legislative redistricting in 2021. We’ve seen that movie in North Carolina.

Impeachment will have unlikely consequences

After Watergate:

  • North Carolina’s Senator Sam Ervin, who chaired the Senate Watergate investigation, went from being an anti-civil rights Southern segregationist to lovable Uncle Sam, champion of the Constitution.
  • Ervin’s aide Rufus Edmisten was elected Attorney General in 1974 and became a long-term fixture in North Carolina politics.
  • An unknown peanut farmer from Georgia became President. And he’s still building houses.

After Clinton’s impeachment:

  • He left the White House with sky-high ratings in the polls.
  • Vice President Al Gore couldn’t decide whether to embrace or run away from Clinton. He ended up losing the closest presidential race in history.
  • North Carolina elected a political newcomer, John Edwards, to the U.S. Senate. Edwards ran against Washington – and both parties. “The politicians up there spend all their time fighting each other,” he said. “I’ll fight for the people.” He narrowly upset incumbent Lauch Faircloth.

As wild as politics is today, there’s no telling what this impeachment battle will bring.

She left Wall Street to fight gerrymandering here

Mary Wills Bode was on the New York City subway last year when her life jumped tracks.

A chance encounter led her to leave the Wall Street law firm where she was on a partner track. She came home to North Carolina, and now she’s working to end gerrymandering in the state.

Bode celebrates this month’s court ruling that directed the legislature to redraw legislative maps for the 2020 elections. But she said in an interview, “it’s not going to deliver a long-term fix and long-lasting reform.”

Mary Wills Bode

Bode is Executive Director of North Carolinians for Redistricting Reform (NC4RR), founded by Tom Ross, former President of the University of North Carolina system.

NC4RR is pushing for an amendment to the State Constitution that would abolish partisan gerrymandering for good and forever, for all elections.

Bode said the fundamental problem is the power – and abuse – of personal data: “Big data has caused big problems for democracy.”

Gerrymandering isn’t new, in North Carolina or any state. Democrats and Republicans have done it. What’s new is the level of computer-driven granular detail that can be manipulated to slice and dice voters and districts, guaranteeing victory for one party or the other.

Unlike reform proposals that establish an independent redistricting commission, NC4RR would put rules in place regardless of who draws the maps. The rules would:

• Prohibit use of any detailed personal data that could predict voting behavior.
• Require transparency in redistricting.
• Require that districts be “contiguous and compact” and “respect county and geographic lines.”

Bode said that, instead of being the poster child for gerrymandering, “North Carolina can be the example of bipartisan redistricting reform for the rest of the country.

“Our state has a historic opportunity to show that good government can be good politics.”

“I come by my politics honestly,” she said. Her mother, Lucy Hancock Bode, was Deputy Secretary and Secretary of the Department of Human Resources under Governor Jim Hunt. Her father, John, is an attorney and lobbyist in Raleigh. Mary Wills grew up in Raleigh and graduated from Cardinal Gibbons High School in 2006, then went to Wake Forest University and UNC-Chapel Hill Law School.

In New York, she worked in capital markets and leveraged finance at the Wall Street firm Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP and then later at Proskauer Rose LLP.

On the subway one Sunday in July 2018, she and a friend were talking about North Carolina politics. An elderly gentleman overhead them and struck up a conversation.

He turned out to be Franz S. Leichter, a Holocaust survivor who served for 30 years in the New York legislature and was called “the conscience of the Senate.”

He and Bode became friends. A few weeks later, Bode told him she was thinking about coming home and working on redistricting reform. Having been gerrymandered out of his own district three times, he told her, “This is a serious issue for democracy. You have to go back to North Carolina.”

“My definition of success changed,” she said.

Success for NC4RR is achieving comprehensive reform before the next redistricting in 2021. It’s pushing House Bill 140, the FAIR Act – Fairness And Integrity in Redistricting. As a constitutional amendment, the bill needs a three-fifths vote in both the House and Senate. Then it goes to a statewide referendum.

Bode said that requires bipartisanship. So NC4RR has Republicans, Democrats and Independents.

The co-chairs are Ross, a Democrat, and Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican. Members include former legislators Margaret Dickson, a Democrat, and Skip Stam, a Republican; Rhoda Billings, former Chief Justice of the NC Supreme Court; Democratic political consultant Courtney Crowder; Sharon Decker, former NC Secretary of Commerce conservative commentator John Hood; Allen Joines, Mayor of Winston-Salem; Raleigh developer David Meeker; Bob Orr, former Associate Justice of the NC Supreme Court; Vicki Lee Parker, Director of the NC Business Council; Southern Pines publisher David Woronoff and Julian Wright, Charlotte attorney and civic leader.

Will Governor Cooper’s club beat Speaker Moore’s gavel?

Speaker Tim Moore used his gavel last week to give North Carolina Republicans a big legislative win. He also gave Governor Roy Cooper a club to wield against Republicans.

It was one of those rare times when a legislative moment bursts into a reality-TV moment.

Last Wednesday morning, the Speaker called for a surprise vote to override the Governor’s veto of the legislature’s budget. Most Democrats weren’t in the chamber, but Republicans were. The override passed.

The Democrats went ballistic. They said Republicans had lied and told them there would be no floor votes that morning.

Representative Deb Butler of Wilmington angrily berated the Speaker: “Mr. Speaker, you are making a mockery of this process. You are deceiving all of North Carolina.”

Rep. Butler confronts Speaker Moore

When Moore tried to cut her off, she thundered, “I will not yield! I will not yield!”

There were no TV cameras on hand, but Democratic Rep. John Autry of Charlotte pulled out his cell phone and recorded the raw scene. It went viral. Now T-shirts are being sold online with Butler’s image and “I will not yield!”

Within hours, Governor Cooper was on television calling it a “deceptive, surprise override of my budget veto” and accusing Republicans of using “bribes and lies” in the vote and in redistricting.

As I watched this unfold, I thought about something my friend Carter Wrenn, a veteran Republican political consultant, always said: “There are two worlds in politics – the inside world and the outside world.”

The inside world is the 2,000 or so people who are in and out of the Legislative Building every day: legislators, staffers, reporters, lobbyists and all the people who are deeply invested and involved in state government day in and day out. They live it and breathe it.

Then, Carter said, there’s the outside world: the world of almost seven million registered voters in North Carolina.

Most of the time, the outside world pays little attention to the inside world. But, now and then, something happens inside that gets attention outside. Usually, it’s something that makes people mad.

That can be explosive. Because, ultimately, the source of all political power is the outside world. That’s the world of voters – and elections. Nobody gets power in the inside world without winning in the outside world. When voters on the outside get riled up, they can wreak havoc on the inside.

Now the question is how Moore’s ploy will play in the outside world.

Do voters care? Some insiders said that what Moore did was business as usual, there’s nothing new about parliamentary trickery and both parties do it. They said Cooper and the Democrats are whining because they got outfoxed.

Even some Democrats were critical of the House Democrats. One texted me, “You know what’s a lot worse than Republicans lying about the vote? Falling for it.”

On the other hand, one nonpartisan veteran of legislative wars said, “It was the most underhanded thing I’ve seen in 30 years.”

Regardless of what insiders say, what matters is what happens in the outside world – the 2020 elections.

Democrats are using the episode to fire up activists and donors.

In a fundraising email titled “we will not yield,” Governor Cooper said: “These officials were elected under illegally gerrymandered districts and I believe they are the last gasp of a dying majority….Together, we can ensure that they answer to the people of North Carolina.”

Speaker Moore posted a long “true recap…to debunk outrageously false claims that House Republicans misled their Democratic colleagues.”

The fight moves to the outside world.

NC races pose dilemmas for both parties

This week’s special congressional races in North Carolina show that both Republicans and Democrats face big dilemmas in 2020. The difference is that Democrats have a choice about what to do, but Republicans don’t.

The Republican dilemma: Will President Trump hurt or help them in 2020?

One way you can look at the 9th Congressional District result is that Trump spells real trouble for Republicans in 2020: Dan Bishop won by less than two points in a district Trump won in 2016 by 12. It’s a district that was gerrymandered “with surgical precision” to favor Republicans, as a special three-judge panel recently wrote.

Or you can say Trump saved Bishop and he’ll boost Republicans in 2020: Bishop won even though he was opposed by a central-casting Democrat, a centrist businessman and Marine veteran who was well-funded and had been campaigning for 27 months. Bishop won, as Trump himself noted, after Trump had a rally in the district the day before the election, made a TV ad for Bishop and turned out his famously loyal base.

President Trump and Dan Bishop at election eve rally in Fayetteville.

Either way, Republicans have little choice next year. Like it or not, they’ve got Trump. Their fate is tethered to his.

Democrats, on the other hand, have a choice. Their problem is that Tuesday didn’t make it any clearer what’s the right choice to beat Trump in 2020.

Nominate a Dan McCready-like centrist who can take swing voters from Trump – Joe Biden, for example? Or roll the dice, pick a candidate who risks being tagged a “socialist” and bet on turning out minorities, millennials and new voters looking for someone totally different from Trump?

One millennial Democrat described the choice to me this way: “Do we want a revolution or a restoration?”

Liberal and moderate Democrats were at each other’s throats before Tuesday. The results didn’t resolve the dilemma and debate.

As a former Democratic political consultant, I confess I have no idea what the right choice is. But I can assure you that Democrats are perfectly capable of making exactly the wrong choice, whatever it is.

Here’s a thought to ponder.

Something strange has happened in American politics the last few years. Maybe it started with the 2008 financial meltdown and the recession. Maybe it started on that terrible 9/11 day.

People all over the political spectrum, and from all walks of national life, are angry, disillusioned and anxious. They have lost confidence in politics, politicians and public institutions. They may be doing okay financially or they may be on the brink of bankruptcy, but they’re all uneasy about the economy.

They’re willing to throw the dice. In fact, they already have. They have elected the two most unlikely Presidents you could imagine: a cerebral African-American man who was serving his first term in the Senate and, then, a flashy promoter and reality TV star who had never served in public office.

Americans rejected the most traditional and respectable candidates you could imagine: John McCain, Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton. In fact, Democrats almost rejected Clinton in 2016 in favor of Bernie Sanders, not even a Democrat, but a “democratic socialist.”

Maybe we want a return to normalcy. Or maybe politics has left the gravitational pull of earth. I wouldn’t bet against anything happening in 2020.

“Healthy NC” or “Welfare State”?

The Medicaid debate in North Carolina is a battle between two big political figures, two big ideas and two big bets on the 2020 election.

Governor Roy Cooper believes that Medicaid expansion will mean a healthier North Carolina. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger believes expansion will cripple the state’s financial health.

Both men believe so strongly they’re right – about the policy and the politics of the issue – that they’ve let North Carolina go without a budget for over two months. And they appear willing to bet the 2020 election on it.

Cooper’s mantra is that he wants North Carolinians to be “healthier, better educated and have more money in their pockets.” He says Medicaid expansion will provide health insurance for 600,000 North Carolinians, the “vast majority” of whom work but don’t get insurance from their employers and can’t afford to buy coverage. He says expansion will rescue ailing rural hospitals and create new jobs.

Senate Berger wrote in an op-ed, “A full accounting of the facts leads to the inescapable conclusion that expanding Medicaid would be a mistake that not only will fail to solve the problems its proponents claim it solves, but will create new problems and rekindle problems that have just recently been put to rest – such as Medicaid cost overruns and yearly budget deficits.”

Governor Cooper believes expansion is politically popular. Democrats say Republicans are callous, putting ideology over people.

Senator Berger believes Republicans can tag Cooper and Democratic legislative candidates in 2020 as socialists, big spenders and big-government liberals.

The Governor’s allies say he’s dug in. He ran on the issue in 2016. It’s one issue that every Democratic legislator supports. Expansion supporters say 37 states have done it, including Republican states, and it has an extraordinarily positive impact on health care and people’s lives.

A study by the Urban Institute says expanding Medicaid has helped states combat the opioid epidemic.

Senator Berger’s allies, especially at the John Locke Foundation, have hammered Cooper over the issue.

The Foundation’s John Hood wrote that Republicans “don’t think the welfare state should get larger, making more people dependent on government handouts and moving our government further away from its limited, constitutional role in a free society.”

He argued that pushing Medicaid expansion would hurt Governor Cooper in polls, because voters won’t support “such a vast expansion of the welfare state.”

Well, if you pose the question that way, voters certainly won’t support it. But Cooper’s team poses the issue a different way. They say polls show that 60-plus percent of North Carolina voters support “health care for people who don’t have it.”

That’s what politics is about: Who frames the issue? One thing I’ve learned over the years is that Governors, like Presidents, have a communications advantage over legislative bodies.

Governors usually have a big edge in favorability and job-approval ratings over legislators. Cooper does.

Governors always have a bigger microphone to reach the public. Unlike the legislature, a governor speaks with one voice.

Governor Cooper is betting that Senator Berger and the Republicans eventually will negotiate. After all, House Republicans floated a form of Medicaid expansion by another name.

If Republicans don’t negotiate, the Governor and his team appear happy to take the issue to the voters next year.

Republicans and Democrats agree on one thing: Voters will have a clear choice.

Democrats May Go Left in 2020

Every four years, in every presidential race, Democrats have a war between moderates and liberals. Most every time, a moderate wins.

This may be contrary to conventional wisdom. But you can look it up.

JFK & Jackie campaigning in 1960.

Look at every contested nomination since 1960, when John F. Kennedy beat Hubert Humphrey, through 2016, when Hillary Clinton beat Bernie Sanders. Yes, even 2008, when Barack Obama was more moderate than Clinton and John Edwards.

Think Jimmy Carter, who liberals didn’t like in 1976 and who beat Ted Kennedy in 1980. Think Bill Clinton, who ran as a “New Democrat” – i.e., “Not Liberal.”

Even nominees who got tagged as liberals in the fall campaign had beaten more liberal Democrats. Michael Dukakis beat Richard Gephardt and Jesse Jackson in 1988. John Kerry beat Howard Dean in 2004.

In fact, only twice did the most liberal candidate win the nomination – George McGovern in 1972 and Walter Mondale in 1984. Both times, Democrats got decimated in November.

But, in 2020, Democrats may well nominate a real liberal to run against President Trump.

For the first time, the Gallup Poll says, a majority of Democrats identify themselves as liberals. That number has been rising steadily for years, from 25 percent in 1994 to 29 percent in 2002 to 40 percent in 2010 to 51 percent today.

Pollster Harrison Hickman, a North Carolina native, says Trump has accelerated the trend. Trump exerts a sort of anti-gravity force on Democrats, pushing them left.

Among all Americans, 35 percent describe themselves as conservative, 35 percent as moderate and 26 percent as liberal. Gallup shows how that has changed over time:

• From 1992 to 2016, the percentage of Americans calling themselves conservative “was consistently between 36 percent and 40 percent, before dipping to 35 percent in 2017 and holding at that level in 2018.”
• Since 1992, the percentage of moderates has shrunk from 43 percent to 35 percent.
• The percentage of liberals has grown from 17 percent to 26 percent.

Clearly, the number of liberals is growing. Just as clearly, 70 percent of Americans are moderate or conservative. While 51 percent of Democrats are liberals.

Therein lies Democrats’ tension. Moderates say moving left will scare away centrist voters who just want a “safe” alternative to Trump. Liberals say Americans want “big, structural change” and the nominee must energize young voters and non-white voters.

You see the split in Democratic presidential polls. Joe Biden, the leading moderate, gets roughly 25-35 percent in most polls. The leading liberals, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, get a combined 25-35 percent. The rest is split among the rest of the field.

This week, a Monmouth University poll showed Warren and Sanders at 20 percent each and Biden at 19. Biden had dropped from 32 in June; Sanders picked up 6 and Warren, 5.

In the past, moderates have won nomination partly because Democrats in the first two states, Iowa and New Hampshire, are more moderate – and more white – than in other states. Next year, Iowa is February 3, and New Hampshire is February 11.

Then the landscape changes.

The caucuses in Nevada, which are heavily Hispanic, are February 22. The South Carolina primary, which is heavily African-American, is Saturday, February 29. The following Tuesday, March 3, brings a super-sized Super Tuesday, with North Carolina as well as Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia Democrats Abroad and maybe Maine.

Who’ll be left standing? Maybe a liberal, a moderate and a hard-to-peg wild card or two.

Then Democrats will have a real war.