Opinion,Politics & Elections
RALEIGH – Dear Democratic member of the North Carolina General Assembly:
I guess you never thought the day would come. In just a little more than a week, the 2011 session of the North Carolina legislature will convene with large Republican majorities in both chambers. After more than a century of nearly uninterrupted control, Democrats had come to view the state government complex in downtown Raleigh as your place. The rules governing the legislature were your rules. The legislative agenda was your agenda. The agencies and departments funded and overseen by lawmakers were your agencies and departments, staffed by your friends and supporters.
You are about to walk a mile, or perhaps several hundred miles, in the Republicans’ shoes. And they are about to try yours on for size.
You are going to have a lot more free time in Raleigh than you usually do. Legislators in a minority party have fewer levers of power to pull and fewer lobbyists and interest groups clamoring for appointments. I suggest that you spend some of this time reflecting on recent events.
In the weeks leading up to the election, when it became obvious your legislative majorities were in danger, some of your leaders and partisan allies resorted to conspiracy theories, character assassination, and wild accusations against Republicans, many of whom you have known personally for many years. You either said nothing or participated in the invective. It gained you not a single vote, and it cost you a great deal.
Did you really think it was wise to attribute responsibility for your losses to independent expenditures by conservative organizations and donors, such as my friend of 25 years, Art Pope? Even if you include such spending in the campaign totals, Democrats still outspent Republicans in North Carolina this year. What really happened is that in past election cycles, Democrats vastly outspent Republicans – often by margins of three or four to one – and won legislative majorities. In 2010, the Democratic edge was a more modest one, and the GOP won 16 House seats and 11 Senate seats.
If we are to stick to the thesis that it’s all about spending, the most parsimonious reading of the data is that in the past, Democrats only maintained power in Raleigh by extorting vast sums of campaign cash from donors and business interests that might otherwise have supported Republicans, using the money for ads and mailers to convince conservative-leaning voters back home that you shared their values. In 2010, by this logic, you just didn’t end up with a large-enough spending advantage to sustain the fiction.
Here’s how your argument sounds: “The Republicans won because they almost raised and spent as much money as we did. They cheated!” See how the argument doesn’t really help you? Whoever advised you to make it was grossly overpaid. You would have been better off arguing that the 2010 elections were an aberration caused by voter discontent with President Obama, the national Democrats, and the economy.
Besides, when you question the legitimacy of the GOP victories in 2010, it sounds rather odd after your party gained control of the N.C. House through criminal means – by the Democratic leader bribing a Republican lawmaker to change parties – after losing the 2002 elections. Jim Black went to prison for it, among other offenses. His crime, in turn, tainted the legitimacy of every piece of legislation enacted during 2003 and 2004.
You know, a little less preening about political legitimacy would be in your interest.
The latest round of attacks involves Republican intentions. Rather than contending GOP proposals are mistaken or unwise, you and your leaders allege Republicans have nefarious intentions – that they are out to destroy the education system, hurt poor and minority citizens, and enrich themselves at the expense of the public interest.
I doubt you really believe any of this. You know that your Republicans colleagues believe what they say about the benefits of smaller government, lower taxes, less regulation, and consumer choice in education and health care. You may well disagree with them about the existence of these benefits, but that doesn’t require you to assume they are being dishonest in pursuing them.
In fact, you are giving them reasons to believe you are the ones who aren’t being honest. Consider the example of school choice. When Republicans see you cast votes for state budgets that offer tax credits or tax dollars to private day cares, private preschools, and private colleges and universities, including religious ones, they conclude that the only reason you oppose similar relief to parents opting for private elementary or secondary education is that the North Carolina Association of Educators told you to. Why shouldn’t they believe you are willing to place the interests of your union allies above the interests of children, particularly those of low-income families who lack the resources to exercise choice?
I’m not one of those naďve or disingenuous people who assert that political labels are meaningless and that Democrats and Republicans ought to cooperate on everything. There are very real disagreements about the causes of North Carolina’s fiscal and economic problems, the need for major reform, and the proper role of government in a free society.
By all means, express your views vigorously. Competition is good in most areas of life, including political discourse. And if you identify instances where the new Republican majorities improperly attempt to limit your equal right to represent your constituents in the General Assembly, I’ll take up your cause.
But if you continue to engage in character assassination and indulge conspiracy theories featuring shadowy corporate interests, Art Pope, the Illuminati, extraterrestrials, or whatever, you will have spent your new free time poorly.
And you’ll probably ensure you have a lot more of it in 2013, 2015, and beyond.
Tomorrow: A Letter to the Republicans.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.