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Election Day 2018

Election Day 2018November 6th, 2018
78 days to go.

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The Dangers of Embracing Labels

Results from the May 8 primaries from four key states are being finalized, but one conclusion can be drawn from preliminary results–labels are dangerous. Congressman Robert Pittenger from North Carolina’s Ninth District and Don Blankenship, running for the Republican nomination for the US Senate from West Virginia, are just two examples of how voters reject empty labels that too many politicians embrace.

Pittenger, in a rematch with Reverend Mark Harris from 2016, became the first House member to lose his reelection bid. Pittenger portrayed himself as an ally of President Trump and as an evangelical. In embracing Trump, Pittenger called the president’s leadership “extraordinary” and compared him to Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill. He also defended the president’s remarks about African nations as “shit hole countries.”

A felon and ousted coal mining executive, Blankenship finished third in a three-way primary. He not only referred to himself as “Trumpier than Trump,” but adopted Trump’s penchant for outlandish statements, referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as “Cocaine Mitch” and referring to those of Chinese ancestry as “Chinamen.”

Candidates adopting labels, such as the “education governor,” have long histories in electoral politics. This rhetorical shorthand often works well when there is some policy substance that supports the label. There is only one Donald Trump and the rush to embrace the Trump label, as we head into the high season of midterm primaries and the general election, should be a  strategy most candidates reconsider.

Predictions for 2018

Reviewing my political predictions for 2017 revealed I was right about many things, especially how many actions taken by the NC General Assembly or the Trump administration would end up on court. I was also wrong about some things, like the courts ordering North Carolina to hold special legislative elections in 2017.

Thinking ahead for the next year, I anticipate just as much, if not more, turmoil in Raleigh and Washington. Because the stakes are so high in state and national politics, I see little bipartisanship taking hold, even if public opinion polls suggest that a growing number of Americans are in favor of politicians from both parties working together.

Donald Trump will continue to be omnipresent and any discussions of electoral politics or public policy must be seen through a “Trump lens.” He will continue to disrupt both Democratic and Republican politics. And, despite approval ratings that should remain at historically low levels, his disruptive presence will continue reshaping the political landscape domestically and internationally.

Here are ten predictions for 2018:

  1. The Mueller investigation into the Russian connection will continue, despite attempts by Trump supporters to end the investigation and force Mueller out of his role. More indictments will come from the investigation, including Jared Kushner, but Trump survives through 2018.
  2. The 2018 midterm elections produce a “wave election” for Democrats with key pickups in Nevada and Arizona, as well as a surprise pickup in Tennessee producing a Democratic majority in the Senate. Likewise, Democrats pick up 45 seats in the House of Representatives to take back that chamber.
  3. The North Carolina congressional delegation remains in Republican control, but the Democrats pick up one seat–the 9th Congressional District–after a bloody Republican primary leaves incumbent Robert Pittenger damaged for a general election fight.
  4. Women become the big winners in Congressional races, as they win enough seats to reach 35 percent of House and Senate seats.
  5. In North Carolina legislative races, after maps drawn by the Special Master in 2017 are finally approved, Democrats pick up enough seats that Republicans cannot override a veto by Governor Cooper on a straight-line party vote. In the Senate, Democrats pick up four seats, making the Republican advantage 31-19, while in the House, Democrats pick up six seats, reducing the Republican advantage to 69-51.
  6. A major state issue, introduced in 2017, which would change the way in which state judges are selected–moving from an election system to an appointment system–will fail. The districts used to elect district and superior court judges, however, will change as judicial redistricting legislation will pass.
  7. At the national level, Congress will pass a law protecting DACA recipients, but Democrats will pay a high price for the law with funding for a wall between the border of Mexico and the United States being part of the agreement. The wall, however, will never be fully built, because of the changed political landscape after the 2018 midterms and legal actions (and threats of legal action) by landowners on the US-Mexico border.
  8. Attempts by Republicans in Congress to completely reform Medicare and Social Security fail to political pressure from interest groups and President Trump.
  9. The US continues to put diplomatic pressure on North Korea and threaten military force, but does not follow through on the military threats. By mid-year, Iran replaces North Korea as the major source if international tension, as internal political pressure in Iran leads political and religious leaders to crack down on its citizens. The Iranian leaders attempt to exert more pressure on other countries in the Middle East to distract the world’s attention from its political repression, which draws even more attention from President Trump and the UN.
  10. The Supreme Court rules for the Colorado bakery in the important free speech case and rules that political gerrymandering (the Wisconsin case) can go too far, thus setting an important new legal standard for the next round of redistricting.

The next twelve months will continue the political process we have experienced over the last ten years of significant change. In that relatively short period of time, both political parties have experienced major conflicts over what it means to be a Democrat or a Republican. At the same time, we have seen a strong push by citizens unattached to political parties to exert their influence over a broken system. In 2016 that push was from angry rural voters. In 2018, angry urban voters, particularly women, may be the key drivers in the change.

Political Polarization Hits New Heights

In recent weeks, Americans have witnessed President Trump and Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) continue to escalate their public battle over treatment of Gold Star widow Myesia Johnson. Others, including White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and the widow of slain Army Sgt. La David Johnson have been forced to take sides about whether a president or a member of Congress is telling the truth about a condolence call, or which person is more out-of-bounds.

Although there is much that is unprecedented about this situation, like a president criticizing his predecessors for calling fewer Gold Star families than him, the most overlooked aspect of this situation is more troubling for the future of American democracy. Lost in the endless hours of commentary about Trump and Wilson is the reality that hyper-partisanship has moved from the political to the very personal. This breeds little willingness on the part of politicians and citizens to talk with one another to resolve real or perceived differences.

In the most recent Meredith College Poll, respondents were asked whether political polarization was worse today than six months ago. Almost 70 percent of North Carolinians felt that the country was more divided than it was just after President Trump was inaugurated, with over 80 percent of Democrats and minority groups feeling this way and almost 60 percent of Republicans concurring.

Several reasons were given about why political polarization has increased. A large majority of Democrats – over 80 percent – identified Donald Trump as the cause of increased polarization, while Republicans were more likely to identify the media as the major culprit. Independent voters were equally split between Donald Trump and the media as major sources of polarization.

While the perceptions of increased political polarization and the differences of opinion about the major causes of this extremism are not surprising, we also asked our respondents to evaluate the effects of this increased partisanship on their lives and relationships. Only about 20 percent of respondents indicated that talking to someone with different opinions of Donald Trump was “interesting and informative,” while just over 40 percent found such conversations stressful and frustrating. Moreover, roughly one-third of North Carolinians stated that they refused to talk to people with different beliefs about Donald Trump than their own.

Within the sample, Republicans were more likely than Democrats to find conversations about politics with people of different attitudes about Trump as interesting and informative, but even then, more than 70 percent of this group found political conversations as negative or they avoided them altogether.

In previous Meredith Polls related to partisanship, we found that the language people use to refer to those different than themselves was extremely negative. Republicans were more likely to refer to Democrats as “un-American” and “ignorant,” while the most often used phrases by Democrats to describe Republicans were “stupid” and “evil.”

Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill and President Ronald Reagan were ideological opposites in the 1980s. O’Neill was often angered by Reagan’s speeches and statements on issues such as taxes or Social Security reform. Many stories have been popularized in recent years about O’Neill going to the White House after being angered by Reagan and sitting down over a drink and talking about their respective difficulties, as opposed to reflexively going to the media to attack the other leader’s motives.

Democracy works better when our leaders behave more like O’Neill and Reagan rather than Wilson and Trump. More conversation without the intermediaries of Twitter and journalists would be a good example for citizens whose polarized attitudes are beginning to reflect those of its leaders.


Trump and the failure of the bully pulpit

The Republican promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) continues to be a problem, despite its members controlling the executive and legislative branches. After having many motions go down to defeat including the “skinny repeal,” Republicans face an uncertain future on health care.  Recent polls show that the ACA is the most popular it has been and various versions of House and Senate replacement bills languish with less than one-quarter of Americans approving any version of a replacement.

Although health care reform is difficult because of intra-party differences among Republicans, President Trump’s unwillingness or inability to perform one of the most basic tasks of presidential leadership—using the bully pulpit—makes Republican legislative victories in the future unlikely.

Just over six months into his presidency, Donald Trump has shown little inclination to use traditional methods of presidential persuasion to sell his policy ideas, instead relying on Twitter threats and small group meetings with legislators to push for policies like the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA). In comparison, President Barack Obama gave a televised speech to a joint session of Congress on September 9, 2009, along with many other speeches and national interviews before the ACA passed in 2010.

From Barack Obama’s speeches on health care reform or human rights and even as far back as Theodore Roosevelt’s speeches on behalf of the Panama Canal, the policy speech and full-blown communication campaign have been critical for major policy initiatives to be successful.

Called the “rise of the rhetorical presidency” by political scientists such as Jeffrey Tullis, this type of presidential persuasion aims to shape public opinion rather than convince legislators directly.  The messages themselves changed from ones based on formal logic and argumentation to more of a narrative structured message filled with emotional appeals.

Historically, there have been many examples of successful policy campaigns by modern presidents. Ronald Reagan was masterful at employing the rhetorical tools of the modern presidency by weaving stories rich in American mythology with reasons often lacking rational proof. His Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars, speech was typical of this approach as he wrapped the story of America’s fundamental goodness with claims about military hardware systems that were unproven. President George W. Bush campaigned to use military intervention in Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein using a similar narrative logic meant to move public opinion, even if the opinion of many military and foreign policy experts did not support Bush’s position.

Likewise, Barack Obama’s campaign for the Affordable Care Act was a full blown public campaign of speeches and media appearances in which the messages about health care reform were framed as part of a longstanding attempt by presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to the present to make health care accessible and affordable to all Americans. He argued that the plan would protect the free market for health insurance and bring down the costs of care, promises that later proved problematic.

Policy speeches and public campaigns are no guarantee of success. Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations campaign in 1919 was a dismal failure. After a grueling year of speeches and appearances across the nation by Wilson, the Senate failed to ratify the treaty authorizing U.S. participation in the League. Likewise, Bill Clinton’s campaign for health care reform in 1993 failed, not because of a lack of effort on Clinton’s part, but in part because his administration’s rhetoric about the need for and promise of health care reform was met by a more powerful narrative in the “Harry and Louise” ads produced by the health care industry.

Instead of making a major nationally televised policy speech advocating a clear health care reform bill or traveling the country sharing stories of how a new law will change lives, Trump prefers exhortation. He promises great health care for everyone and criticizes the ACA for being a disaster. This is not persuasion that will help Republicans get health care reform across the finish line.

Presidential persuasion, as demonstrated by many of his predecessors, still matters, but as President Trump has illustrated with many other White House traditions, the policy speech may be a thing of the past.

Who will lead the Senate health care debate?

Senate Republicans voted by the narrowest of margins – 51-50 – to begin debate to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Several days ago even this procedural victory appeared unlikely.

McConnell scheduled today’s vote even though several polls show the bill’s low public approval. With the help of President Donald Trump, McConnell pressured just enough senators to vote in favor of the motion – including Dean Heller and Rand Paul – who previously said they had concerns with Republican reform ideas.

Although McConnell and Trump successfully used their positions to pressure critics such as Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, one of the most vocal critics of the process used in the Senate, it is unlikely the tactics used to squeeze 50 Republican senators to vote to allow debate will translate into a Republican bill that repeals and replaces Obamacare.

The likely leaders in the next phase of the Republican attempts to reform health care will come from different parts of the caucus. Their arguments in the upcoming debates will be forceful and not amenable to the pressures of McConnell or Trump.

Susan Collins of Maine, one of two Republicans who voted against the motion to debate, leads the group of moderate Republicans and has been clearest about the need for starting over on reform.

McCain made an emotional return to the Senate floor to cast his vote to proceed with debate, even while criticizing the Republicans’ bill and the process used by McConnell. McCain represents the mainstream Republicans who want to follow a more traditional legislative process.

McCain: “We’re getting nothing done.”

Rand Paul of Kentucky, speaking for the libertarian wing, argues that nothing short of a complete repeal of the ACA with no reform that offers government subsidies is the best solution.

The Republican caucus remains divided about the way forward on health care reform. However, with a weakened majority leader and an unpopular president, it will be interesting to see who emerges as a leader in the next few weeks.

One party is ‘racist,’ the other ‘losers’? Ut-oh

After Gov. Roy Cooper’s State of the State address last month, N.C. Senate Leader Phil Berger delivered a hard-edged response in which he said: “the institutions of the Left – the press, the Democratic Party, and liberal special interests – have ginned up great controversy and false outrage. They organize vulgar rallies and protests. They disrupt public meetings. They attempt to sabotage our state’s economy and put regular North Carolinians out of business. They call Republicans ignorant, dishonest, immoral, racist, bigoted, anti-women, anti-voter, anti-education – even treasonous.”

A senator since 2000, Berger has held leadership positions since 2004 and has a reputation for civility. The tone and content of his response to Cooper’s speech was thus out-of-character, but perhaps understandable given the pressures Berger is under with a Democratic governor and constant attacks from in and out of the state over HB2 and other controversial laws.

That a large majority of North Carolinians think that the nation and state are highly polarized is not surprising, given the 2016 election and its aftermath. However, when we asked open-ended questions about what people thought about conservatives, liberals, Democrats, and Republicans, the intensity of citizens’ perceptions of those different from them was surprising and concerning.

The most often-used word that Democrats used to describe conservatives and Republicans was “racist,” with terms like “evil,” “stupid,” and “uncaring” all being used by a significant number of registered Democrats. Likewise, registered Republicans most frequently used descriptions of liberals and Democrats as “dishonest,” “whiny,” “losers,” and “evil.” Unaffiliated voters had equal disdain for conservatives, liberals, Democrats, and Republicans, with “liars” being most commonly used, followed by “hypocrites,” “weak,” and “out of touch.”

In addition to the language used, 93 percent of Democrats think the GOP is more extreme and 94 percent of Republicans believe Democrats are more extreme.

These results don’t bode well for those who hope that hyper-partisanship subsides and that political discourse becomes more civil. Instead, these results point to some long-term implications:

1. Elected leaders will continue to stake out extreme policy positions and view compromise as politically untenable, especially on hot button issues.

2. Political parties will continue to lose influence over increasingly larger segments of the population, as people decide that neither party represents them. Because party identification is a large part of voting, this may mean that turnout will drop precipitously.

3. Citizens will continue to see protests and legal actions as their main ways of affecting the outcomes of policies they disagree with.

There are many causes of the hyper-partisanship affecting North Carolina and the United States, but few easy solutions. However, civil discussion and compromise are essential to a functioning democracy, so we must continue to try.

After HB2 repeal, there are no winners, only losers

For just over a year, North Carolina roiled in the controversies surrounding House Bill 2 and, after several failed attempts, the governor signed legislation that repealed elements of the original law. Although organizations like the Atlantic Coast Conference have said that the state is now eligible to host athletic championships, HB2 will have lasting effects on the state and its politics.