GOP opportunity opens as lawmakers convene

As the General Assembly convenes, Republicans have the power to show they can govern well.

January 29, 2013 

Sometimes, there is a second chance to make a first impression.

A year ago, Republicans took charge of both houses of the General Assembly for the first time since 1896. Long denied even perfunctory input into legislation by Democrats, GOP leaders moved to brand the building as their own, with a conservative agenda that most notably, and regrettably, resulted in a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. They also moved to require voter ID at the polls, which might have in effect disenfranchised some elderly and minority voters who don’t have driver’s licenses.

Then-Gov. Beverly Perdue vetoed that measure, among others. That one she won. Others she lost, and the Republicans stumbled, especially when they held a midnight session to override a veto on a bill that prohibited public school teachers from having their N.C. Association of Educators dues taken out of their paychecks. It was a slap against teachers who had been critical of Republican cuts to education.

The vote was petty and amateurish and left the public with the correct impression that Republicans were “up to something” and not very good at governing. The law was later ruled an unconstitutional violation of the NCAE’s free speech rights.

But now, as Republicans prepare to begin the 2013 session with even larger majorities than they had before, they have a confidence builder they didn’t have last time. Republican Pat McCrory is governor and unlikely to have many, if any, veto confrontations.

The numbers

Frankly, with this fresh chance at a first impression, Republican leaders would be wise to follow the words of Art Pope, the conservative Raleigh businessman who contributed to many Republican legislative campaigns and now is the governor’s budget czar. At a recent appearance on public policy in Chapel Hill, Pope said Republicans do not have a “mandate” but an “opportunity.”

A former legislator himself, Pope is very conservative and doubtless agrees with much of the GOP agenda, but he cautioned that Republicans now can demonstrate a skill for governing if they move judiciously. He’s right. To assume that winning an election means that all of the people want everything on a particular platform is hubris.

The platform includes a voter ID law, which will now pass, along with the further dismantling of environmental and other regulations affecting business, tougher teacher tenure rules, public money in vouchers for private school expenses, tax cuts for businesses and individuals. And despite a right-to-work law on the books that makes it illegal for unions to force new employees to join them, there actually is talk of a constitutional amendment to that effect.

These are not good ideas, and they are driven by conservative ideology, not necessity or common sense.

Earning respect

Gaining the confidence of the people isn’t about pandering to political groups. It is about developing broad consensus, which comes with deliberate and open debate and a measure of moderation.

Are Republicans up to it? They can be. And McCrory, perceived by most voters as a moderate big-city mayor (Charlotte), needs to assert his own influence. His fate, after all, is going to be tied to the actions of the General Assembly, and he’d doubtless like it tied to a sail and not an anchor.

He’ll have to worry a bit as well about House Speaker Thom Tillis and Sen. Phil Berger, president pro-tem of the Senate, having their eyes on the same prize, the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate in 2014. Trouble in Partisan Paradise?

Republicans understand as well as Democrats that governing with a big majority represents a public trust as much as it does a political victory (“opportunity” versus “mandate”). In the face of financial realities, or federal directives (on Medicaid, for instance), ideology sometimes has to give way to practicality. And sometimes hard-line policymaking has to consider compassion.

The journey is theirs to chart.

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