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Gary Pearce: Democrats might take lesson from FDR

By Gary Pearce

North Carolina Democrats are torn right now — between celebration and disappointment over 2020 and between hope and fear over 2022.

They have cause to celebrate 2020. Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein were reelected. Joe Biden is President. Donald Trump is gone. Democrats won the U.S. Senate.

They also had disappointments. Trump won North Carolina, again. Democrats lost a winnable U.S. Senate race. They lost the lieutenant governor’s race, Council of State races and judicial races.

Their decade-long quest to retake the General Assembly failed. Republicans control redistricting again. They can throttle Cooper’s agenda again.

Some Democrats fear they’ll be stuck in the minority in the legislature until at least 2026. And even as candidates emerge for the 2022 Senate race here, Democrats fear the midterm elections will be a wipeout for the president’s party, as they often are.

But there is a contrary view.

“This might be a better midterm than usual for a president’s party,” suggests Harrison Hickman, a North Carolina native and a pollster for 40 years. Hickman did polling for Governor Jim Hunt and for Senator Terry Sanford.

I agree. The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken up politics in ways we don’t fully appreciate yet. The fallout may give Democrats a big advantage – and a big opportunity in 2022.

Hickman says the most popular governors across the country today, regardless of party, are those who took strong action on COVID, like Governor Cooper: “Passive governors are unpopular, and aggressive governors are popular.”

President Biden has taken that lesson to heart. He is going big and bold. He proposed a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package. He signed a series of sweeping executive orders on climate change, equity, inclusion and racial reckoning. He’s aggressive on vaccinations.

If Republicans decide to be obstructionists, the president is in a win-win position. If the pandemic fades and the economy storms back, he gets credit. If things don’t get better, Republicans get blamed.

People in politics can fall into the trap of looking at the world through a political lens, not through people’s eyes. Washington is caught up in impeachment and filibusters. Raleigh is focused on redistricting, jockeying for 2022 and the governor’s pandemic powers.

North Carolinians are focused on their jobs and families. They’re worried about getting vaccines. They want to get their kids out of the house and back in school. They want life to get back to normal. They want to go out to eat and go on a trip.

They want politicians to get how they feel – and do something.

Everybody knows that when Franklin D. Roosevelt became President in 1933, he said “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He also said, “This nation asks for action, and action now.”

During the campaign, FDR said: “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach.”

Today, as then, Democrats might offer “bold, persistent experimentation” – a mass vaccination drive, a sweeping plan to reopen schools and vaccinate teachers and students, a higher minimum wage, more help for small businesses, more help with rent and mortgages, a massive infrastructure plan, greater health care coverage and even a guaranteed basic income.

Politically risky? Maybe. But sometimes doing too little is a bigger risk than doing too much.

Gary Pearce was a reporter and editor at The News & Observer, a political consultant, and an adviser to Governor Jim Hunt (1976-1984 and 1992-2000). He blogs about politics and government at www.NewDayforNC.com.

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