RALEIGH – Both State Treasurer Richard Moore and Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue made excellent points this week about the need for fiscal responsibility in North Carolina state government. This is the kind of thing that will make choosing between them in the Democratic primary for governor next year so darn difficult.
For some, I hasten to add. Naturally, I don’t discuss my own electoral preferences in this space, though I will say I enjoy the option, as an independent, of choosing which partisan ballot to use in primary elections.
Moore and Perdue are both talented, experienced, well-financed political heavyweights – figuratively speaking, of course, as both have maintained their fighting trim. They know what they need to do both to clinch the nomination and compete effectively in the 2008 general election. First, they must nail down the liberal elements of the Democratic coalition, to which both candidates have been speaking in recent weeks on issues such as the minimum wage, the earned income tax credit, and global warming. At the same time, they must have something attractive to offer business-oriented, moderate Democrats in the primary (not just because these folks vote but also because they disproportionately give money and staff local party organizations) and to moderates and even conservative swing voters in the general election. When Moore and Perdue talked this week about fiscal discipline and finding savings in the state budget, they were aiming squarely at the latter political constituencies.
Let me back up and fill in the numbers. In the Democratic primary, nearly two-thirds of the likely vote can be called “liberal” in the modern sense by my estimation, which is based in part on a couple of past Pew Research Center political typologies adjusted for the North Carolina context and updated with my own data and guesstimates. That is, of the roughly 40 percent of the electorate that is in the partisan Democratic camp, a little over a third (15 percent of the total electorate) are Seculars, meaning they are lefties on both economic and social issues, but mostly motivated by the latter. Another quarter of the Democratic coalition (10 percent of the total electorate) are the Partisan Poor, also called Disadvantaged Dems. These voters welcome public assistance, increased regulation of corporations, and government intervention in the economy but their views on social issues are centrist or even conservative.
A third group of N.C. Democrats, the Moderates, tend to be more centrist or even conservative on economic matters, and often work in business enterprises or organizations (think Clinton’s New Democrats in the 1990s or Hunt Democrats in our state since, oh, about the Jurassic Period). They’re also about 15 percent of the total electorate, or just over a third of Democrats. While the party’s candidates need all three groups to be committed and energized to win competitive races, what they promise the two liberal groups can sometimes be hard for Moderates and unaffiliated swing voters to swallow (just as what Republican candidates separately promise their two conservative blocs, the Enterprisers and the Moralists, can also be hard to market to Republican centrists and swing voters).
The key is to employ a rhetorical approach or specific policy alternative to satisfy the aspirations of the party’s base in a way that also beckons the center. Look at how Moore and Perdue did it this week. Speaking to a business forum in Durham, Moore argued that grandiose plans to issue $6 billion to $9 billion in new state debt for infrastructure projects would be prohibitive expensive. But rather than couching the argument in GOP-sounding terms about future tax hikes or decreased freedom, Moore argued that spending money on lower-priority projects, no matter how worthy, would take funds away from core state functions such as public education.
As for Perdue, she proposed an excellent idea: a budget-savings commission, similar to the military base-closings commission, that would submit a list of proposed savings each year to the General Assembly for a straight up-or-down vote. The fact that Senate leader Marc Basnight immediately shot down the lieutenant governor’s proposal proved its merit, given his pork-barrel proclivities (it was also interesting to see a public tiff between Perdue and Basnight, seen in the past as political and legislative allies). Again, Perdue has argued for greater efficiency in state government as a means to free up funds to spend on education, health care, and other state programs.
By all means, let’s cap state debt and create a waste-closing commission for North Carolina. Afterwards, we can debate whether to spend the savings on other government priorities or return it to the taxpayers to spend on their own priorities. Indeed, these sound like wonderful issues around which to build a gubernatorial campaign in 2008.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.