President Barack Obama and Gov. Pat McCrory of North Carolina don’t agree on many policy questions. But they have found themselves facing a similar political situation this year. And their very different reactions capture the deep – and alarming – differences between our two political parties right now.
Both Obama and McCrory essentially had their accomplishments on the ballot. McCrory, a Republican, was running for re-election. Obama wasn’t, but his chosen successor was running against a candidate who had personally demeaned him and promised to repeal his agenda.
As you’d expect, Obama and McCrory each campaigned hard. There, however, the similarities stopped. The differences have played out in three acts.
In the first act, before Election Day, Obama was faced with evidence that Russia was trying to help Donald Trump win. Obama erred on the side of nonpartisan caution, opting not to announce the CIA findings on Russia’s motives. He was willing to use the presidential bully pulpit to criticize Trump, but not the levers of presidential power to disadvantage him.
McCrory went so far using his levers that a federal appeals court unanimously slapped him back. It threw out legislation he had signed to restrict voting access, saying it targeted African-Americans with “almost surgical precision” and “discriminatory intent.” Still, McCrory and his allies managed to take steps to make voting harder for many Democrats.
The mischief didn’t keep him from losing narrowly, and in the second act, McCrory initially refused to accept the outcome. He invented stories of “massive voter fraud” and spent weeks refusing to concede.
Meanwhile, Obama – despite Russia’s interference and Hillary’s Clinton’s popular-vote win – immediately congratulated Trump and announced “we are now all rooting for his success.”
The third act is happening now. Obama has instructed his staff to help Trump’s staff. McCrory has signed two bills that strip his successor, Roy Cooper, of some powers.
The justification – a much smaller, long-ago power grab by state Democrats – is laughable. The Charlotte Observer called the changes breathtaking and arrogant. The News & Observer, of Raleigh, compared them to a coup.
In sum: McCrory tried to change the election’s rules to help himself; pretended he did not lose afterward; and is ultimately overturning some of the election’s consequences.
If he were merely a rogue politician, this story would be a local one. But too many Republicans elsewhere have begun to ignore political traditions, and even laws, to exert power. While Democrats continue to play by more genteel rules, Republicans have subscribed to the Capone school of politics (as Sean Connery fans can recite): “They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.”
In several states, Republicans have changed laws to reduce Democratic voter turnout. After Obama’s election, Mitch McConnell rallied Senate Republicans to oppose his policies – even if Republicans agreed with them! – to make Obama a failed president. This year, Republicans refused to fill a Supreme Court vacancy.
Calling out this behavior is difficult for anybody who’s not a partisan Democrat, because doing so makes you sound like a partisan. We in the media, for example, have sometimes framed the events in North Carolina as a case of “partisan polarization.”
That’s akin to reporting Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait under a headline of “Tensions Between Iraq, Kuwait Escalate.” It’s … not false.
Hard as it is, no one should be putting a thumb on the scale to pretend the Republicans’ anti-democratic behavior is normal. I agree with Republicans on some issues, like the value of competition in education and the benefits of two-parent families. But I won’t cheer any ill-gotten gains on those issues.
The most important thing now would be for sober Republicans to stand up to their party’s radicalization, even if it meant leaving the party. Absent that, the big decisions fall to Democrats.
They need to understand that their opponents are changing the rules – and often benefiting. No, Democrats should not simply mimic the cynicism. For both moral and political reasons, they should defend small-d democratic values, which are, after all, American values.
But the party does need to get tougher.
In Congress, the Democrats’ threshold for working with Republicans should be higher than in the Bush years. The alternative would signal to voters, wrongly, that the GOP was the less partisan party, because it could pass bipartisan bills. Around the country, Democrats should fight every restriction of voting rights and build grass-roots organizations in all 50 states focused on little-guy economic arguments. Dreaming wishfully of demographic destiny won’t cut it.
Anybody tempted to fantasize about inevitable Democratic victories should think ahead to 2020 – when the McCrory playbook may well be used not just in a state election but a national one.