Learning from Jimmy Carter and John McCain

Watching Joe Biden prepare to take over the Presidency and Donald Trump try to overturn the election, it’s instructive to read two new books about politicians who represent the best of America: Jimmy Carter and John McCain.

They are two great men of great talents and, yes, great flaws. One a former President and one a two-time unsuccessful candidate for President. Both Navy men, graduates of Annapolis. Both veterans of the highs and lows of politics.

Their lives and legacies offer lessons about where we are today in America, how we got here and how we go forward.

“His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life,” by Jonathan Alter, Simon & Schuster.

Alter’s book, like most accounts, praises the good works Jimmy Carter has done and the modest life he has led in the 40 years since he left the Presidency. Alter is far more positive than most writers, though, in assessing Carter’s four years in the White House – and why they’re overlooked:

“Carter’s farsighted domestic and foreign policy achievements would be largely forgotten when he shrank in the job and lost the 1980 election.”

What achievements? Alter’s list: “the nation’s first comprehensive energy policy,” “historic accomplishments on the environment,” consumer protection, ethics laws, civil service reform, two new Cabinet departments (Energy and Education), appointing Blacks and women to key positions, ending inflation, cutting the deficit and the growth of the federal workforce, requiring banks to invest in low-income communities, legalizing craft breweries (!), deregulating airlines and trucking, increasing the defense budget, championing human rights and challenging the Soviet Union on dissidents, aiding Afghan rebels, ratifying the Panama Canal Treaty, establishing full diplomatic relations with China and persuading Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin to sign the Camp David Accords (“The Israelis and Egyptians have not fired a shot in anger in more than forty years.”)

And Carter appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the federal appeals court. She later said he “literally changed the complexion of the federal judiciary.”

Yet Carter is remembered more for his failures and shortcomings. Alter, a journalist himself, says “the aggressive post-Watergate press tended to assume the worst about him.”

Democrats controlled Congress those four years, but Carter often was at odds with them. Ted Kennedy challenged him on health care and for the nomination in 1980, crippling Carter’s reelection. In those days, too, Washington Democrats had a pronounced bias against Southern Democrats; I saw it while working for Governor Jim Hunt.

Carter hurt himself. For all the political skill he and his Georgia Mafia showed in coming from nowhere (literally, 0% in the polls) to win the 1976 election, Carter was far better at deciding what was the right thing to do than at persuading the public and other politicians it was right.

(A sidelight: The first U.S. Senator to endorse Carter in the 1976 primaries was a 33-year-old first-termer named Joe Biden. Forty-four years later, Carter’s Georgia helped put Biden in the White House.)

Alter offers a not-so-positive picture of Carter’s early record on race: “While a quiet progressive since his experience in the integrated Navy in the late 1940s, he failed to oppose racial discrimination in public until sworn in as governor of Georgia in 1971.”

Carter was from one of the most racist parts of rural Georgia. He clearly was uncomfortable with the violent and virulent segregation of that place and time, but he didn’t speak out forcefully against it.

Former Governor and Senator Terry Sanford, who fought racism and segregation in North Carolina in the 1960s, never forgave Carter for his 1970 campaign against Carl Sanders. Carter’s campaign attacked Sanders, an owner of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, with a picture of a Black player dousing Sanders with champagne in a post-game locker room celebration.

But Carter changed, and he changed America. He was dragged down by an economic crisis and the Iran hostage crisis. He, like Donald Trump, suffered the ignominy of being a one-term President.

Yet Carter – in his four years as President and in the four decades since – set a standard for decency, integrity and service to his country, a standard that all Presidents, and all Americans, can admire and emulate.

“The Luckiest Man: Life With John McCain,” by Mark Salter, Simon & Schuster.

Carter’s biography was written by a journalist, a trained skeptic and critic. McCain’s was written by a more sympathetic observer; Mark Salter was for 30 years McCain’s aide, advisor and confidante, as well as coauthor of seven books. But Salter has written a book that is both insightful and balanced.

We know the highlights of McCain’s life  – POW, congressman, senator, maverick, unsuccessful presidential candidate, cancer victim and, in a role McCain both rued and relished at the end of his life, foil to Donald Trump.

Salter fills in the story – the hard-partying Navy flier, son and grandson of admirals, who finished near the bottom of his class at Annapolis, leading only in demerits.

Shot down on his sixth combat mission over Vietnam, McCain endured more than five years of imprisonment, marked by mistreatment, solitary confinement and torture. He was one of the most resistant and resilient of the POWs.

You can’t read about what he endured without wondering about the character of a man running for Commander-in-Chief who said: “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

Maybe there was a higher justice at work when Arizona flipped dramatically this year and, with Georgia, helped elect Biden, one of McCain’s close friends in the Senate. His widow Cindy endorsed Biden.

Where Jimmy Carter was a son of Georgia, McCain had no ties to Arizona. Salter, who has the novelist’s eye for telling detail, writes that on one day – March 27, 1981 – McCain buried his father, retired from the Navy after 22 years and moved to Arizona, where he went to work for his father-in-law’s lucrative beer distributorship and began running for Congress.

During a campaign debate, an opponent called him a carpetbagger. McCain delivered one of the most political devastating counterpunches ever. “Listen, pal,” McCain began. He talked about growing up as a Navy brat, then serving around the world and then: “As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.”

McCain won that election. In years to come, friends and foes alike would come to dread his acid tongue.

Throughout his career – he served two terms in the House and was elected to the Senate six times – McCain had an openness and candor that won him good press. But that did him no good in two ill-starred campaigns for President. In 2000, he got run over by the Bush machine. In 2008, he had the bad luck to run against charismatic, historic Barack Obama.

McCain brought no credit to himself with his confused and confounding response to the financial collapse of 2008. Even worse, he gave us Sarah Palin.

He redeemed himself in a gracious concession speech to Obama on Election Night. It’s worth watching on YouTube.

It was as a Senator that McCain made his mark on America. He was a relentless champion of campaign finance reform. He cast the decisive vote to save the Affordable Care Act.

Democrats fond of McCain forget he was a rock-ribbed Ronald Reagan conservative and a searing critic of what he believed to be President Obama’s shaky and uncertain record on defense and foreign policy.

Above all, McCain believed in “regular order,” the traditional operating rules of the Senate that emphasized compromise over confrontation. He bemoaned that the Senate was becoming like the House, a gladiators’ arena of winner-take-all partisan power plays and score-settling.

After Trump’s election in 2016, McCain inevitably became viewed as the anti-Trump. Salter held Trump in contempt, but he writes that “McCain seemed largely indifferent” to Trump’s Twitter attacks. He chastised Salter: “I don’t know why you let him get you so worked up. That’s not how you beat him.”

Salter says McCain “preferred instead to take on Trumpism…opposing Trump’s most noxious views, mainly his nativism and affinity for autocrats, and making the case for the international order founded on the values of free people and free markets.”

McCain once said that he and Trump were “very different people,” with different backgrounds and upbringing: “He was in the business of making money.” McCain added, “I was raised in a military family. I was raised in the concept and belief that duty, honor and country is the lodestar for the behavior that we have to exhibit every single day.”

Our Best

Jimmy Carter and John McCain, both Navy men and politicians, were otherwise very different: from different parts of the country, different backgrounds, different political parties and different philosophies.

But both were men of duty, honor and country. Both represented the best of America. Both gave their best to America.

Their stories remind us how truly great America can be.

 

Correction

My blog earlier this week, “Cooper and Biden are in the Same Boat,” incorrectly stated that Roy Cooper was elected Governor in 2008. Of course, it was 2016.

Cooper and Biden are in the Same Boat

Governor Roy Cooper and President-elect Joe Biden are similar politicians who face similar challenges the next four years.

Both will have tough Republican opposition in Congress and the legislature. Both must deal with the Covid-19 crisis and an economic crisis. Both lead a Democratic Party that is pulled between moderates and progressives.

And, for both, it’s four years and out. Cooper can’t run again in 2024, and Biden will be 82 years old.

Both have backgrounds that helped them in an election torn between red states and blue states, red counties and blue counties. Biden is the working-class kid from Scranton, Pennsylvania. Cooper grew up in rural Nash County and worked on his family’s farm.

Both have long experience in elected office, nearly 50 years for Biden and over 30 years for Cooper.

Biden was elected to the New Castle County Council in 1970, at age 28. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972, served there 36 years and was Vice President for eight years.

Cooper was elected to the North Carolina House in 1986, at age 29. He was appointed to a Senate vacancy in 1991 and elected Majority Leader in 1997. He was elected Attorney General in 2000 and Governor in 2008.

Both have done one of the toughest things in politics: beat an incumbent. Cooper unseated Governor Pat McCrory. Biden beat a two-term incumbent for the Senate and this year overcame widespread doubts by winning the nomination and defeating President Trump.

Cooper’s steady leadership through the pandemic helped him win reelection by 4.5% even as Biden lost North Carolina by 1.3%.

Some Democrats are concerned that Cooper didn’t win by more. Polls had shown him leading by double digits. But, before the election, one of Cooper’s campaign strategists noted that the polls showed Cooper getting 52-53%, and predicted that’s where the Governor would end up. He got 51.5%.

Now comes the tough part: governing.

Biden’s biggest challenge is Mitch McConnell; Cooper’s is Phil Berger.

Both McConnell and Berger are powerful Senate leaders who have been implacable foes of Democrats’ ideas. McConnell has blocked Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s sweeping Covid relief bills. Berger has blocked Cooper’s plans to expand Medicaid and significantly raise teachers’ pay.

Over the years, Biden earned a reputation as a “Republican whisperer,” a Democrat who could talk with and work with Republican bulls like McConnell, Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond.

His skill will be tested now, unless Democrats win both Georgia runoffs. Then Biden’s challenge would be reining in Democrats’ overreach.

Unlike Biden, Cooper doesn’t have a Democratic House. Like Biden, his instinct is to negotiate and seek compromise. That didn’t work in Cooper’s first term. This year, he drew battle lines and tried to elect Democratic majorities in the legislature. That didn’t work either.

Cooper has named a bipartisan, blue-ribbon, business-heavy commission to push Medicaid expansion. He believes that’s a popular issue, and he hopes Republicans will compromise.

Both Biden and Cooper have to navigate tricky currents in their own party, the tensions between moderates and progressives that surfaced again after an election that was largely disappointing to Democrats.

How will Biden shape his party’s future? Will he groom Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as his successor?

Which Democrat might succeed Cooper, and what role will he play in that? Cooper also can play a national party role; he’s chairman-elect of the Democratic Governors Association.

As chief executives and party leaders, Biden and Cooper have to keep in mind the 2020 election’s lesson: the American people are tired of President Trump, but they don’t trust the Democrats.

Briefs on the Chief Justice Race

My blog and newspaper column this week looked at the historically close race for North Carolina Chief Justice – the politics and mechanics of counting votes and deciding which votes should be counted. I learned a lot that I didn’t have room to use. Here are some highlights and sidelights.

 

Chief Justice is a powerful office.

How powerful? Well, Chief Justice Cheri Beasley shut down all the state’s courts because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Chief presides over not only the Supreme Court, but also the entire judicial branch of government and the state’s unified court system. She or he appoints the director of the Administrative Office of the Courts.

The Chief’s hand reaches into every corner, every county and every courtroom of North Carolina.

The Chief Justice controls the Supreme Court’s calendar – which cases will or won’t be heard. She assigns cases to North Carolina’s Business Court, one of the busiest in the country. She appoints three-judge panels to hear cases bearing on key constitutional issues.

 

The political and policy stakes are high.

Before this election, the Supreme Court had six Democrats and one Republican. If Paul Newby wins, the Court will be 4-3 Democratic. And two Democratic seats are up for election in 2022.

Among the cases the court is likely to take up in the next two years: redistricting, voter ID and school vouchers.

 

The post-election period can matter as much as the campaign.

By Election Night, candidates, staffers and supporters are worn out physically, mentally and emotionally. But in a close contest like this, you have to get up and go again.

It happened in the Governor’s race in 2016. Governor Pat McCrory and Republicans challenged Governor Roy Cooper’s victory. McCrory didn’t concede until December 5.

But then the margin was over 10,000 votes. In the Chief Justice race, it’s just 401 votes.

Every vote does count.

Normally, we pay little attention to provisional votes that may or may not count or to mail-in ballots that weren’t accepted for one reason or another. But now, there are enough of those votes to change the outcome. Especially in a year when so many mail-in votes were cast.

Beasley’s campaign also requested a hand-eye recount to double-check ballots that may have been missed or misread by tabulating machines.

There’s a fundamental difference in how the two campaigns are approaching this. Beasley’s people focused on provisionals and mail-ins that weren’t counted. They concentrated, of course, on likely Democrats.

Newby’s campaign targeted thousands of mail-in votes that had been accepted. An analysis by The News & Observer says Black voters were disproportionately targeted.

One voter the Newby campaign challenged in Wake County is named Monica Laliberte. That’s the name of WRAL’s “5 On Your Side” reporter. Monica, check on your vote!

 

There are big differences between counties’ counting capacities.

The Beasley campaign said Robeson County had 1,300 provisional ballots out of about 41,000 votes cast. But Orange County, where twice as many votes were cast (almost 83,000), there were only about 60 provisionals. (Provisionals are votes that were cast but can’t be counted until questions are resolved about the voter’s eligibility.)

Why the disparity?

It’s because county election boards are funded by county commissioners. There are vast disparities in staffing, training, funding, experience and equipment. That all counts when it comes to counting.

 

Why is the race so close anyway?

Why is Beasley almost tied with Newby in an election that mostly went Republicans’ way?

Joe Biden lost North Carolina. Cal Cunningham lost. Other Democratic judicial candidates lost. Democratic challengers for Council of State lost. Democrats didn’t make hoped-for gains in the legislature.

Why did she do so much better than many Democrats? I have two theories.

First, incumbency. Incumbent Governor Roy Cooper and incumbent Attorney General Josh Stein won. Incumbent Senator Thom Tillis won. Incumbents won Council of State races. Being the incumbent helps.

Second, strategy. Beasley’s campaign was concerned about the drop-off that usually occurs down-ballot: people who vote for President or Senator or Governor, but don’t vote for Chief Justice. So, the campaign focused on 100 high-Democratic turnout precincts.

In the end, Beasley actually ran 11,000 votes ahead of Biden. Newby ran almost 63,000 votes behind President Trump, even though he was a regular at Trump’s rallies.

 

Beasley could still win if she loses.

President-elect Biden has promised that, if he gets the chance, he’ll appoint a Black woman to the United States Supreme Court.

Who better than a former Chief Justice from North Carolina?

A Close Call for Chief Justice in North Carolina

Our closest election ever gives us our closest look ever at how votes are counted – or not counted.

And it gives us a chance to salute the unsung heroes who do the counting.

There never has been a statewide election in North Carolina as close as the race for Chief Justice between Democratic incumbent Cheri Beasley and Republican Paul Newby, an associate justice on the Court.

As of last Friday, Newby led Beasley by 401 votes out of 5,391,404. That’s a margin of 0.0074%

That makes Attorney General Josh Stein’s 13,623-vote tight-as-a-drum reelection over Jim O’Neill (50.13%-49.87%) look like a landslide.

We won’t know the winner until the process plays out, and it runs on two tracks.

One track is a recount, not only the routine step of running ballots back through machines, but also potentially a hand-eye recount of every single one of the nearly 5.4 million ballots.

The other track is county election boards hearing protests filed by both candidates involving thousands of ballots. The counties’ decisions can be appealed to the State Board of Elections, then to Superior Court and eventually, conceivably, to the Supreme Court itself.

This could go on for a while.

The campaigns’ protests take opposite approaches. Beasley’s campaign wants votes that were rejected initially to be counted. Newby’s campaign wants votes that were counted initially to be thrown out.

The standoff reflects a long-running battle in North Carolina. Democrats maintain that Republicans deliberately suppress the votes of Blacks, college students and other Democratic-leaning groups.

Every election, Democrats mobilize a “voter-protection team” of lawyers. They track mail-in ballots that are rejected. They track provisional ballots, used when there are questions about voters’ eligibility that must be resolved before the votes can count.

Because of Covid-19, more people voted by mail this year. Because President Trump attacked mail-in votes, more Democrats than Republicans voted by mail.

Beasley’s campaign has zeroed in on several hundred mail-in ballots and provisionals that weren’t counted originally. The campaign says most questions involve errors in marking or mailing ballots that can be corrected legally.

Beasley’s supporters contend she will gain votes – enough to put her ahead – as counties review those ballots.

Her campaign also requested the hand-eye recount, a comprehensive review to find any errors that machines missed. Maybe a voter filled in one candidate’s bubble but inadvertently made a mark beside the other candidate’s bubble. The voting machine can’t read the ballot, but the human eye can. Democrats say these ballots tend to be Democrats’.

Newby’s campaign takes a different tack. It asks counties to disqualify thousands of mail-in ballots that already have been counted. The campaign says volunteers scanned absentee ballot envelopes for “irregularities,” like the lack of a voter or witness signature.

An analysis by Tyler Dukes of The News & Observer concluded that “a disproportionate number of those protests have been filed against Black voters.”

Election officials across the state now must resolve the issues. They take up the task after going through an unprecedented, prolonged and pandemic-plagued year. They’re exhausted, frustrated and under intense pressure.

All the while, they hear President Trump and Rudy Giuliani rail about election fraud. They see death threats against election officials in other states.

I’ve been through election recounts. Every time, I’ve been awed by the patience and professionalism of the people who work in our election system. They are dedicated to making sure that every legal vote is counted.

They are the backbone of free and fair elections. They’ll get this one right, however long it takes and whatever the outcome. They deserve a vote of thanks.

2020 Shows the Real Problem with Presidential Elections

While President Trump fumes over his defeat and flings false charges of a “rigged” election, the real flaw in our presidential elections gets off scot-free: the Electoral College.

The 2020 election showed, again, how presidential campaigns are distorted by the absurd, antiquated and downright dangerous system that the Founding Fathers bequeathed to us nearly a quarter of a millennium ago.

Joe Biden won a huge margin in the national popular vote. He got 80.1 million votes, the most ever, to Trump’s 73.9 million votes. That’s a margin of 6.2 million, also the most ever.

Biden also won big in the Electoral College – the count that counts: 306 to Trump’s 232. That is exactly the same electoral-vote margin that Trump won in 2016.

How big a win is that? Well, Trump called his a “landslide” victory. At a July 2018 rally in Great Falls, Montana, Trump said Democrats “actually got their ass kicked” in 2016. “306 to 223, that’s a pretty good shellacking.”

But a close look at the numbers shows how much the Electoral College distorts election results.

Trump this year narrowly lost three key states – Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin – by a combined total of 44,000 votes. Had he won all three, he and Biden would be tied, with 269 electoral votes each. The House would pick the President; each state’s delegation would have one vote. Trump almost certainly would win.

Had Trump won, we would have a President who lost the popular vote for the third time since 2000, The other two were George W. Bush in 2000 and, of course, Trump in 2016.

The Electoral College distortion this year would have been even greater than in 2016. Then, Trump’s combined margin in the decisive states was 77,744 out of 136.7 million votes. Hillary Clinton’s popular-vote margin was 2.9 million, far less than Biden’s 6.2 million this year.

In 2016, 77,744 votes negated 2.9 million. This year, 44,000 would have negated 6.2 million.

Here’s another way to look at the Electoral College distortion. The accompanying map (compiled by the group National Popular Vote) shows how many general-election campaign events were held this year in each state.

All 212 events were held in just 17 states. Twelve states received 96% (204) of the events.

That means 33 states didn’t have a single general-election campaign event. They had no TV ads, no real campaign activity, no canvassing and no voter-turnout operations.

North Carolina got plenty of attention. We had 25 of the 212 events. We had wall-to-wall TV ads. We had mailboxes stuffed with political mail. We had phone calls, emails and texts.

Some of us might gladly share that bounty with folks in other states.

Totally ignored were some of the biggest states: California (55 Electoral Votes), New York (29) and Illinois (20). All three are Democratic states. Biden’s margin in California alone was 5 million, more than 80% of his national margin.

Also ignored were Republican states in the Deep South, Midwest and Rockies.

Much has been made of rural voters this year. But little attention was paid to the 10 states with the highest percentage of rural residents: Maine, Vermont, West Virginia, Mississippi, Montana, Arkansas, South Dakota, Kentucky, Alabama and North Dakota.

All their votes, in effect, didn’t matter.

Of course, it’s hard to convince Republicans that electing Presidents by a national popular vote is preferable to the Electoral College. Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the eight presidential elections since 1992. The only GOP winner was Bush over John Kerry in 2004.

Bush won the popular vote by 62 million to 59 million, or 50.7% to 48.3%, and won the Electoral College 286-251. But Kerry’s campaign considered contesting the count in Ohio. If they had successfully overturned Ohio’s 20 electoral votes, Kerry would have been President and North Carolina’s John Edwards Vice President – despite losing the popular vote.

The shoe most decidedly would have been on the other foot.

Do Republicans today really want to admit they can’t win the votes of a majority of Americans? Didn’t Ronald Reagan win two landslide elections in 1980 and 1984? Didn’t George H.W. Bush give Michael Dukakis a shellacking in 1988?

Or do Republicans want to rely every four years on scratching out a narrow win in a few battleground states?

The real threat to America isn’t the fantasy of a vast, diabolical conspiracy of Democratic and Republican election officials magically conjuring up millions of votes for Joe Biden – apparently, a conspiracy so vast and diabolical there’s no evidence of it whatsoever.

The real threat is the Electoral College.

Whatever our party, we should ponder two questions.

First, do we want to risk the political crisis that would ensue if a presidential election was thrown into the United States House of Representatives? That’s a prospect fraught with even more bitterness and polarization than we have now.

Second, who should pick the President? A tiny sliver of voters in a handful of states? Or 154 million Americans, plus tens of millions more who might vote if the election was fought in all 50 states and if they believed their votes mattered?

You decide for yourself.

“Defund the Police” Undid the Democrats

In science and philosophy, it’s called “Occam’s Razor:” the problem-solving principle that the simplest explanation is usually the right one. 

The rule applies to politics. It demonstrates why Democrats lost races for Congress and state legislatures even as President-elect Joe Biden won a sweeping victory. 

The simplest explanation is that Biden was able to separate himself from a cluster of negative issues and images that cost other Democratic candidates. “Defund the police” was the most damaging.

Asheville street in June

Democrats might wonder how goals like “end police racism,” “stop unjustified killings” and even “reform the police” got so far out of whack.

Congressman James Clyburn, whose endorsement of Biden was the most decisive event in the presidential race, blamed “defund the police” for Democrats losing a congressional race in South Carolina.

As we get distance from and gain perspective on the election, it’s clear Donald Trump energized a “white wave” of working-class voters that overwhelmed Democrats’ hope of a “blue wave” that would sweep Republicans from control of the U.S. Senate, House and state legislatures.

Race and religion played a part. As did fears that Democrats would raise taxes, take away health insurance, hurt small businesses and kill jobs – the familiar “socialist” litany.

There were cultural, even personality, factors. Democrats, as one critic put it, can come across as “moralistic snobs.”

But nothing cut as deeply as the suspicion that Democrats excused crime, looting and rioting, as well as the fear they would handcuff the police and fail to protect innocent citizens’ lives and property.

That suspicion and fear hurt Democrats in some Latino communities and helped Trump win some Black male votes.

How did Biden escape the damage? How did he win a 306-223 electoral vote victory, exactly the same as Trump’s victory in 2016? 

First, Biden was a familiar figure. He’d been in Washington since 1972. Second, he had an image as a moderate; he even was criticized for it in the Democratic primaries, where he vanquished more liberal opponents. Third, he made clear where he stood in the fall campaign.

Biden told 60-70 million Americans who watched the debates that he wasn’t for defunding the police. He promised he wouldn’t raise taxes on people making under $400,000 a year. He promised he wouldn’t take away private health insurance.

Trump undercut his own argument against Biden. In the second debate, he attacked Biden for passing a tough crime-fighting bill in the 1990s. It’s hard to paint your opponent as soft on crime when you attack him for being too hard on crime.

Other candidates didn’t have Biden’s armor. One legislator in North Carolina told me Democratic candidates here had a hard time deflecting TV ads and mailers tying them to “defund the police.” 

The slogan is a flash point now as Democrats debate the future of the party. As they say, “It’s about who we are as a party.”

Who are they? A Pew Research survey last January found that 47% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning registered voters describe themselves as liberal. More than half said they are moderates (38%) or conservatives (14%).

How about Black Democrats? In 2019, Pew said, 43% called themselves moderate, 29%, liberal and 25%, conservative. This year, Latino voters showed they’re not monolithically liberal or Democratic-leaning.

How about history? From John F. Kennedy in 1960 to Joe Biden this year, Democrats usually nominate moderates over liberals for President.

Given all that, as they look to 2022 and 2024, Democrats might ask how they got tagged with the most toxic political label of 2020.

How Was Your Thanksgiving?

Were you thankful? Or fearful? Or both?

Did you gather all together, safely masked and socially distanced? Or did you throw caution to the winds and put family and friends at risk? Or did you cancel the whole thing?

No matter how we celebrated, we’ll never forget Thanksgiving 2020. We’ll never forget 2020, period.

Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday. It has always been free of the glitz and grind of Christmas. It’s just family, food and football. 

Thanksgiving has always been a time to reflect on our blessings as Americans – the beautiful land where we live, the bounty many Americans enjoy that most people around the world can only dream of, and our history as a free people living in the best system of government ever devised.

This Thanksgiving – amid a resurgent pandemic and in the wake of a bitter election – we reflect on whether we will continue to enjoy those blessings.

The pandemic left too many empty places at too many tables this year. Many more will be empty next year as the virus continues to run rampant. Meanwhile, we put our hopes in people’s good sense and in the genius of modern medical science.

This year, after a bitter and divisive campaign, we elected a new President and Vice President. He represents a yearning for unity, dignity and respect. She represents the rise of a new, more diverse and more open America.

But, at the same time, we watch nervously as the old President stirs the fires of bitter-end resistance to change and, indeed, to the fundamental underpinning of our government: the peaceful transfer of power according to our freely exercised right to select our leaders.

A Reuters Ipsos poll last week found that 52 percent of Republicans think President Trump “rightfully won” re-election. That’s more than 38 million people.

As always, we have history to look to and learn from.

The first Thanksgiving was 399 years ago, in 1621, when the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Native Americans shared an autumn harvest feast. 

The first national Thanksgiving Day was proclaimed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War.

That same month, Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. His famous last line bears repeating: “…we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

A newly published biography – “Abe: Abraham Lincoln In His Times,” by David S. Reynolds (Penguin Press) – relates how, 25 years before the Gettysburg Address, a 29-year-old Lincoln, relentlessly striving to improve and educate himself, gave a lecture to the Springfield, Illinois, Young Men’s Lyceum warning against “this mobocratic spirit…now abroad in the land.”

“Let reverence for the laws,” he said, “be breathed by every American. Let it become the political religion of the nation.”

Revolutionary passion had established the nation, he said, but now must yield to reason. “Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in the future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense.”

But passion overcame reason. The Civil War came. More than 600,000 Americans died, and President Lincoln honored them at Gettysburg.

We live again in a time of passion. Let’s pray that law and reason prevail this time.

Is Roy Cooper the Last of His Kind?

North Carolina may never see another Democratic Governor like Roy Cooper. In fact, we may never see another Democratic statewide candidate like him.

By “like him,” I mean Democratic Governors like Jim Hunt who have dominated politics since World War II: farm boys and small-town boys who went off to college, acquired some urban polish and assembled broad centrist-progressive coalitions that propelled them to office.

They were attuned to the innate conservatism and religious faith of small-town and rural North Carolina. They blended that background with the progressive traditions of universities and urban areas. They understood both urban and rural areas. 

That model may be outdated now.

The 2020 election pitted deep-red, Republican small towns and rural areas against deep-blue Democratic urban areas. Suburbs and exurbs voted red or blue depending on whether they’re closer to cities or the countryside.

From now on, few, if any, Democratic statewide candidates will come out of rural areas. For one thing, there won’t be many progressive Democrats living there. For another, it will be virtually impossible for such a creature to win a local or legislative election that will boost them onto the statewide stage.

By the same token, we’re not likely to see many statewide Republican candidates who fit the mold of North Carolina’s only three Republican Governors in modern times. They came out of Mecklenburg County (Pat McCrory and Jim Martin) and Watauga County (Jim Holshouser). 

Both Mecklenburg and Watauga are now deep-blue Democratic.

Terry Sanford pioneered the Democratic model. He grew up in Laurinburg and went to UNC for undergrad and law school. After fighting in World War II, he moved to Fayetteville. He was elected Governor in 1960 by combining young WWII vets with the “branchhead boys,” farmers and country people who had bucked the establishment and elected Kerr Scott as Governor in 1948.

Jim Hunt perfected the model through five winning campaigns, Lieutenant Governor in 1972 and Governor in 1976, 1980, 1992 and 1996. Hunt grew up on a farm in Wilson County. He earned bachelors and master’s degrees at NC State and a law degree at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Governor Mike Easley (2001-2009) came from Rocky Mount. His father owned a tobacco warehouse. Easley went to UNC and N.C. Central Law School.

Bev Perdue (2009-2013) was a variation on the theme; she grew up in a Virginia coal town, graduated from the University of Kentucky and represented the New Bern area in the legislature.

Cooper is the epitome of the winning formula. He grew up in Nash County. His father was a lawyer and a farmer. Cooper worked on the farm growing up. Like Hunt, his mother was a teacher. Cooper went to UNC undergrad and law school. He moved his family to Raleigh after he was elected Attorney General in 2000.

He beat an incumbent Governor in 2016. This year, again, he won despite Donald Trump carrying the state. Cooper led all Democrats. He got over 2.8 million votes; his margin was 4.5%, a landslide in today’s politics.

(Only one candidate ran stronger: Republican Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler. He won over 2.9 million votes and a margin of 7.7%.)

Two questions arise about the future. First, what will the winning model be – for both Democrats and Republicans? Second, who can govern successfully?

North Carolina needs candidates who can speak to both rural and urban residents, as well as to all races, creeds and backgrounds.

We need leaders who can bring us together, not just politicians who drive us farther apart.

We need to find them, and they need to step forward.

Georgia On Our Minds

For days after the election, as state after state was shaded red or blue for President on maps and magic screens, Georgia and North Carolina remained stubbornly blank.

There was little doubt North Carolina would go red, albeit narrowly. Georgia turned blue, even more narrowly: Biden holds a 0.3% lead there, ahead some 14,000 votes out of 5 million cast.

Just before the election, a leading Democratic strategist here told me North Carolina was becoming a blue state. We are, he said, just behind Virginia and just ahead of Georgia on that path.

Why did Georgia leap ahead? Here are some thoughts and theories, plus some numbers.

Warning: This may be a trigger for readers with math anxiety. Bear with me.

Stacy Abrams: 800,000

800,000 is the number of new voters that Abrams, her group Fair Fight and allies are credited with registering in Georgia since 2016. Many of them apparently turned out this year.

The 800,000 amounts to 16% of Georgia’s total vote this month.

As our reluctantly outgoing President would say, that’s huge.

Abrams began the effort in 2012. One observer called it “a very methodical, step-by-step, year-by-year plan that had at its core expanding voting power in numbers of people of color in general and African-Americans in particular.” 

NC Democrats: Minus 100,000

Compare Georgia’s registration numbers to North Carolina. Since 2016, the number of registered Democrats here has gone down, from 2.7 million to 2.6 million now.

The number of registered Republicans has gone up, from 2.1 million to over 2.2 million.

The total number of registered voters here is up, from 6.9 million in 2016 to 7.3 million today. The number of unaffiliated voters is growing fast. 

Maybe North Carolina Democrats should take a lesson from Stacy Abrams.

15 vs 16

North Carolina got cheated on Electoral Votes this year. By Georgia.

We have 15 EVs; Georgia has 16.

But we had 5.5 million voters. Georgia had just 5 million.

Democrats, however, are probably OK with this. It’s one more Electoral Vote for President-elect Biden.

A Biden First

There’s karma in Biden winning Georgia.

Long, long ago, in a Georgia far, far away, a peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter ran for President. Everybody laughed. People in Georgia laughed. The Atlanta Constitution headline was “Jimmy Carter is Running for What?”

No big-name Democrats endorsed Carter at first. No U.S. Senators. Except one.

Joe Biden, in his first term from Delaware, was the first Senator to endorse Carter. Biden chaired Carter’s national steering committee. He campaigned for Carter in dozens of states.

Biden was just 33 years old. He joked that he was too young to run for President himself. Now he’ll be our oldest President.

North Carolina Ain’t Georgia. 

Let us count the ways.

Some 57% of Georgian’s live in the Metro Atlanta area. That’s like if Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Fayetteville and Wilmington all picked up and moved to Charlotte.

Georgia has more Black voters, about 30% of the electorate. Blacks are about 20% of North Carolina’s electorate.

Georgia Democrats have the “30-30 Rule.” To win, they need Black turnout at 30% of the total vote, and they need to win 30% of white votes. Democrats in North Carolina need to win some 38% of white voters.

And We’re Not Virginia

Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, has turned true blue. But Virginia is smaller, 4.5 million votes this year compared to North Carolina’s 5.5 million.

And Northern Virginia, the heavily Democratic DC suburbs, now overwhelms the rest of the commonwealth.

How Close Is North Carolina?

As in 2008 and 2012, North Carolina was one of the closest states in the Presidential race. This year, we were one of the six closest.

The margin here was just over 70,000 votes or 1.3%. Florida had about the same margin for Trump.

Georgia and Arizona (karma again, John McCain’s state) were the closest states, both about 0.3% (pending any recount) for Biden.

Other close states were Wisconsin (0.7%) and Pennsylvania (1%), both for Biden.

Cal Cunningham’s Numbers

If Cal Cunningham had won the same number of votes that President-elect Biden won in North Carolina, he would have won the U.S. Senate race.

Biden won 2.68 million votes here; Senator Thom Tillis won 2.66 million. But Cunningham won only 2.57 million. Cunningham ran over 115,000 votes behind Biden. Tillis ran behind President Trump, but by 92,000 votes, just enough to win.

Clearly, Tillis and Cunningham both turned off voters in their own parties. Tillis may have been seen as not loyal enough to Trump. Cunningham proved that the worst wounds in politics are self-inflicted.

The Senate race also showed that attack ads work when they go unanswered. Cunningham didn’t or couldn’t answer ads attacking him for his affair.

Had Cunningham won, the U.S. Senate would be tied today, 49 Democrats and 49 Republicans. Democrats would need to win only one Georgia runoff to control the Senate with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in the chair.

The Bottom Line

To sum up, North Carolina remains an evenly divided state. 

We’ve got deep-red parts and deep-blue parts. Together, we’re deep purple.

It’s fitting that a basketball-mad state likely will have jump-ball, last-second, nail-biter elections for years to come.

New NC and Old NC Collide – Again

New North Carolina collided with Old North Carolina in the 2020 election. It was a split decision. The battle goes on.

New NC – younger voters, Blacks, urban residents, suburban women and college graduates – reelected Governor Roy Cooper and (apparently) Attorney General Josh Stein. 

New NC helped President-elect Joe Biden come within 1.3% of carrying the state. It was Democrats’ best performance in a presidential race here since Barack Obama in 2008 and Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Old NC – rural and small-town voters, white evangelicals, older people and high-school graduates – carried the state for President Trump, despite predictions North Carolina would be his Waterloo. 

Old NC (and gerrymandering) kept Republicans in control of the General Assembly. And in control of redistricting for the coming decade. The GOP won key judicial seats. 

The race for Chief Justice is a virtual tie. In the Council of State, both parties kept the seats they held before.

Democrats had dreamed of flipping North Carolina decidedly blue this year. It didn’t happen.

Now the 2020s promise to be a decade of political trench warfare. 

That’s why Democrats, despite unseating President Trump and reelecting Governor Cooper, look so grim and glum. 

Democrats thought demographic trends were with them. They saw metropolitan areas growing, and they saw their strength growing there. They thought Trump would drive their voters to the polls.

He did. But he also drove Old NC voters to the polls. 

If you live in a city, it’s hard to grasp how many people live in the state’s small towns and rural areas. And it’s hard to grasp how hostile they have become to the Democratic Party’s brand.

Is it race? Resentment over Covid-19 restrictions? “Defund the police”? The Green New Deal? Medicare for All? Taxes? Do Democrats look like “socialists”?

Whatever, it’s a reminder that North Carolina has the third-biggest rural and small-town population of any state – 2.9 million, behind only Texas (4.3 million) and California (3 million).

We have a lot of white evangelicals. Nationally, they’re an estimated 15% of the population, but 25% of voters. Their numbers are higher here. They voted 80% for Trump and Republicans.

Along with the rural-urban divide, we have a clear racial divide between the parties. 

There’s an age divide. National exit polls showed Democrats stronger among voters under 40 and Republicans stronger among older voters. 

There’s a diploma divide. The exit polls said Biden won 57% of voters with college degrees; Trump won 77% of whites with no college degree.

Such divisions aren’t new in our politics. Since World War II, North Carolina’s rapid growth has created a constant tension between what the state once was and what it’s becoming. 

That tension has defined our politics. And it goes back to our very beginnings.

William S. Powell

Historian William S. Powell wrote in his 1989 book “North Carolina Through Four Centuries”:

“Many key events in the state’s history came about because of rivalries and jealousies, first between northern and southern parts of the colony, next between east and west and more recently between urban and rural.”

“Rivalries and jealousies…between urban and rural”? Sounds like 2020.

In colonial days, Powell wrote, counties in the Albemarle region gerrymandered the state Assembly to dominate the Neuse and Cape Fear counties.

A century later, western North Carolinians resented the iron control that eastern landowners held on state government. The East-West split persisted through most elections in the 20thCentury.

This year, as throughout our first 400 years, New NC and Old NC battled again for control. 

Don’t expect the conflict to end any time soon.