Ned Barnett

Barnett: GOP misses a historic opportunity

ned.barnett@newsobserver.comJuly 27, 2013 

As the session neared its end last week with a House vote on the budget, Speaker Thom Tillis left his post and took a place among the representatives.

Normally, the speaker doesn’t debate, but this time Tillis wanted to speak not as a leader who directed a wave of legislation that took a toll on the poor and unemployed, but as a human being.

Tillis, a Mecklenburg County Republican, asked, “Does anybody really think that I came down to this legislature so that we couldn’t take care of people who were helpless and need the state’s help?”

In his question rang the answer to what went wrong for Republicans during their first turn in more than a century to control the governorship and the legislature. They had hoped to be reformers, to be helpers, to be a force for a new way. They said they would end the backroom dealing and clean up what they saw as the waste that marked the Democrats’ long run in power. They would be the people’s champions.

Instead they became villains. Every Monday, thousands of protesters gathered to attack them as the tools of the Koch brothers and big business and special interests. More than 900 felt strongly enough to be arrested for civil disobedience. They derided GOP lawmakers as tea party and religious zealots, marauders of the environment and enemies of women’s rights.

Republicans dismissed the complaints, but they felt them. And finally the speaker himself seemed to say, hey, we’re not bad guys.

And he’s right. Republicans in the General Assembly, many of them newcomers in their first and second terms, came to Raleigh with varying degrees of idealism and hopes of bettering their state. Tillis himself led the drive to compensate victims of the state’s terrible eugenics program.

But along the way, the new party in charge fell victim to two things. First was their own illusion about state government. The second was their lack of confidence that their stands would lead to a lasting hold on power.

Republicans campaigned on the idea that state government was corrupt and wasteful and rife with do-nothing state employees whom Gov. Pat McCrory called “seat warmers.” The truth is – the mendacity of former Democratic speaker Jim Black and the grasping of former Democratic Gov. Mike Easley aside – North Carolina’s state government is relatively cleanly run and well executed. The escapades in Raleigh are small bore events compared to the plundering seen in Albany, Springfield and Baton Rouge.

Nonetheless, Republicans declared state government broken and state employees part of the problem instead of the solution. With that they diminished the agencies they took over and alienated the people who make them run.

For some reason, the new rulers of Raleigh chose the role of occupiers rather than liberators. They set the capital against themselves.

Yet for all their bravado, they lacked confidence that what they were doing was what most North Carolinians wanted done.

The Republicans didn’t approach lawmaking like a group working through priorities – taxes and budgets first, social issues second. Instead they ran about the Legislative Building like kids who had found the key to the candy store. They grabbed everything they could knowing the opportunity wouldn’t last. That gave the session an atmosphere of recklessness and foolishness.

The GOP managed to anger huge swaths of the state, from those in the university system, to state employees, to public school teachers, to minority voters, to women’s rights advocates, to municipal officials, to environmentalists, to anyone who drinks water from Jordan Lake.

They pleased some people who will see a big cut in their tax bill and who saw the estate tax disappear. And others who looked approvingly at cutbacks in unemployment benefits and limits on Medicaid. But elections aren’t won by carrying the top 5 percent plus the hate-thy-neighbor types.

It could have turned out so much better for North Carolina and the Republicans’ prospects if they had approached governing as a gradual, long-term effort rather than a six-month spree. But they didn’t and the blame falls to their leadership.

The Republican leadership failed to win wider support because of a lack of political instinct. With their lock on control of state government they had nothing to lose by reaching out to Democrats to create a less partisan tone in the legislature.

And surely it would have been a shrewd and impressive move if Gov. Pat McCrory had engaged the Moral Monday crowds. Instead he made an odd statement to The Wilson Times that he had done so when he hadn’t. Later a spokeswoman clarified his comment by saying that he was referring to street encounters with people who, as he put it, cussed him out.

Republicans left Raleigh with their chins up, insisting they did what they set out to do. But most know they made more enemies than progress and turned a historic victory at the polls into historic losses in public opinion polls.

They came, they saw and were conquered, not by Democrats or protesters but by their illusions and their leaders’ competing ambitions and weaknesses.

They’ll be back, but without the expectations and goodwill they squandered. The Grand Old Party failed to become the great new one.

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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