RALEIGH — Newly elected Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper gave his first State of the State address on March 13. The longtime leader of the North Carolina Senate, Phil Berger, gave the Republican response. Both men were clear and confident in their speeches, which ought to tell you something about the current state of North Carolina politics.
But what? The conventional wisdom is that precisely because these two partisans are so confident, they are destined to collide, frequently and spectacularly. Given the collisions we’ve already seen since December, on such matters as separation of powers and House Bill 2, there is clearly a lot to be said for the conventional wisdom.
Keep in mind, however, that both Cooper and Berger recognize the public appeal of working out political differences. For example, both blame the other for sabotaging potential accommodations on HB2 (Berger has the more persuasive case, I would submit). Their speeches implicitly granted that some kind of accommodation to get the issue off the front pages, and out of the way of sporting events, would be popular. Each was blaming the other for past failures to reach that accommodation.
Also, while in both cases their confidence flows from their experience, their circumstances and political needs are strikingly different. Cooper has served in state government in one capacity or the other since the 1980s. His speech alluded to that past, particularly to the 1990s when he served as majority leader in the Senate and Republicans controlled the House. “We disagreed and fought,” the governor recalled, but “we found common ground” on a variety of issues.
Berger devoted most of his remarks to the six years since the GOP won control of the General Assembly — and contrasted this period favorably with the previous era when Democrats controlled most of the levers of state government. Berger pointed out that Republicans have cut taxes, reduced the regulatory burden and funded core services while shoring up the state’s reserves, and enacted school choice, education reforms and transportation reforms based on a familiar principle: “that government is best which governs least.”
The resulting job creation, economic growth, budget surpluses and other advances have been impressive, Berger argued, observing that “if anyone but Republicans had accomplished all of this, the press would herald North Carolina as a national success story.” But that’s not what happened. “Instead, the institutions of the Left — the press, the Democratic Party and liberal special interests — have ginned up great controversy and false outrage.”
Cooper and the Democrats interpret the results of the 2016 election as a public rejection to the thesis that Republican rule in Raleigh has been good for the state. Berger and GOP lawmakers respond that their statewide margin of victory was far larger than Cooper’s slender margin of two-tenths of a percentage point over Pat McCrory, and that Republicans enjoyed other successes in statewide and local races.
So far, the governor has made some puzzling tactical choices. If his goal is to “find common ground” with the legislature, as he said repeatedly in his address, why didn’t he find more positive things to say about at least some of the policy choices Republicans have made? Former Gov. Jim Hunt would have — and did, during the same period of the 1990s that Cooper praised. It helped him find common ground with the Republicans of the time.
Berger said he wasn’t against working with Cooper and Democrats. But he rejected entirely the notion that the 1990s and 2000s were the good old days to which North Carolina should retreat as quickly as possible. “What the press will undoubtedly praise as a return to a golden age is in reality a step back to out-of-control spending, back to high taxes, back to blindly throwing money at an education bureaucracy that fails to put students first,” Berger said.
Again, both men are confident in their positions and abilities. But as a practical matter, Berger is in the stronger position. To be successful, Cooper will have to temper his confidence with some practicality.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “N.C. Spin.” Follow him on Twitter @JohnHoodNC.