If you want an example of just how empty and dispiriting American politics has become, all you have to do is look at the Republican congressional primary in the Charlotte-centric 9th district.
The race features two well-known Tar Heel political figures, U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger and his challenger Mark Harris. The contest involves real issues, such as the recent bipartisan budget deal signed by President Donald Trump.
But instead of a serious debate, we are getting the usual soul-sucking name calling that has become the trademark of modern politics. The object seems to be to move as far to the right as you can, while denouncing your opponent as a closet liberal.
Harris is compared to Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi, while Pittenger is described as a Republican liberal.
If you believe either of those ridiculous assertions, I’ve got some exercise equipment to sell you that I promise will make you thin in 30 days.
Pittenger, a real estate investor, served in the state Senate in Raleigh and was the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor in 2008 before being elected to the 9th District congressional seat where he is serving his third term.
His challenger, Harris, stepped down as senior pastor of Charlotte’s First Baptist Church last year to enter the congressional race. The former president of the North Carolina Baptist Convention is a telegenic, good-on-his feet, politician/preacher who is essentially now involved in his fourth political campaign.
Harris was a leader in 2012 of the Amendment One campaign that successfully passed a state constitutional amendment that reaffirmed North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriages – a ban that became moot after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision legalizing such marriages.
He finished third in the GOP primary for the U.S. Senate in 2014 in a race won by then-state House Speaker Thom Tillis. In 2016, he unsuccessfully challenged Pittenger in the Republican primary, losing by a mere 133 votes. They are now at it again.
Because the state’s congressional districts have been so gerrymandered, there hasn’t been a competitive race in any recent general election. But there can still be competitive primaries, where the object is to ideologically outflank your opponent, portraying him or her as insufficiently conservative.
In recent days, Pittenger and Harris have been attacking each other regarding the massive budget deal passed by Congress and signed by Trump, all Republicans, that ended a brief government shutdown.
The $300 billion deal raises the debt ceiling, increases Pentagon spending by $165 billion and domestic spending by $131 billion over two years; includes $10 billion a year for infrastructure spending, $2.9 billion a year on child care and $3 billion a year to battle the opioid and substance abuse crisis, and $90 billion for disaster relief for the victims in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.
The measure passed the House 240-186, with 73 Democrats voting for it and 67 Republicans voting against it. It passed the Senate 71-28.
Pittenger joined the House GOP leadership in voting for it. Harris blasted him for “mortgaging the future of our kids and our grandkids.”
“Every special interest was funded in this budget that left Chuck Schumer and Democrats walking away smiling. It’s unfathomable that even funding of Planned Parenthood was included after a promise from Republicans in Congress to defund them after the controversy that they reportedly kept babies alive to harvest their organs.” (The House Oversight Committee and several state investigations cleared Planned Parenthood of any wrongdoing.)
“Robert Pittenger showed us yet again why he consistently voted as one of the most liberal Republicans in Congress,” Harris wrote.
This is nonsense. According to ratings issued by the respected American Conservative Union for 2016, Pittenger is not even close to being among the more liberal Republicans – not by a country mile. (He had an 88 percent rating out of a perfect 100.) In fact, there were far more members of the Republican caucus to his political left than there were to his political right, according to the ACU.
But this should come as no surprise.
When Pittenger was in the state legislature, he pushed for slashing corporate tax rates, cutting spending by $1.5 billion, capping medical malpractice awards, and anti-abortion legislation.
This is the same Pittenger who in 2016 after the protests involving the shootings of Keith Lamont Scott told the BBC that violence in Charlotte stems from protesters “who hate white people because white people are successful and they’re not.” He later apologized for the remark – maybe that was his liberal side.
But Harris is not alone in using distortions.
Pittenger put out an email news release that featured photos of Harris and Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, side by side.
At first glance, Harris and Pelosi have about as much in common as say, Michael Jordan and Woody Allen. But not according to Pittenger.
“Once again,” he writes, “Mark Harris has opposed President Trump’s agenda and is instead siding with liberal Democrats like Nancy Pelosi. While I voted to support President Trump, (Defense) Secretary Mattis and our troops, Harris said no. He is standing with Pelosi and House Democratic Leadership against the President’s budget.”
There are debate-worthy issues in the budget compromise that divided both Republicans and Democrats. Some of the decisions made in recent months involve important tradeoffs: Tax cuts or hurricane relief spending? Infrastructure funding or defense spending?
But none of that is happening in the 9th congressional primary, where the two candidates are trying to out-right-wing each other. The district includes part of Mecklenburg County, most of Cumberland and Bladen counties, and all of Union, Anson, Richmond, Scotland and Robeson counties.
Because they want to represent a gerrymandered district that is heavily Republican, Pittenger and Harris have to worry only about very conservative GOP primary voters rather than reaching out to the middle.
Because many of those voters identify themselves as evangelicals, there is also a lot of Bible Belt politics being practiced.
Harris, with his wide church network, has an advantage. Already, former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, has made a campaign appearance for Harris.
Over the holidays, Pittenger ran a TV commercial in which he stood in front of a Christmas tree and said: “I’ve dedicated my life to sharing God’s love through Jesus Christ. Let’s end political correctness and put the true meaning of Christ back in Christmas.”
Pittenger has been touting his own Christian work, such as trips to Guatemala and Moscow with Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse, and a trip two years ago to Germany to meet Saeed Abedini, a Christian pastor released by Iran after three years of imprisonment.
So here is a question. With two such active churchmen in the race, does this mean they will start trying to tell the truth about each other?