Whether as Democrats while this was a one-party state or Republicans since the GOP’s 1972 resurgence, North Carolina conservatives have repeatedly used a reliable political tactic: Point at their opponents and holler, “Liberal! Liberal! Liberal!”
Or, for emphasis, “Ultra liberal!” And, in a really tight spot, “Mondale liberal” – no exclamation point needed.
The combined appeal to both preserve traditions – implicit in “conservative” – and to reject foreign ideas – implicit in “liberal” – worked so well that Democrats began calling themselves “progressives” in the 1980s.
In last week’s debate, Gov. Pat McCrory used the liberal tool at least three times in his first answer alone, and as a sign of his unease over recent polls modified it with “very” at least twice. To further season the expletive, he tied Attorney General Roy Cooper, his opponent, to previous attorney general and governor Mike Easley and former Gov. Bev Perdue, both supposedly liberals, then to Charlotte’s mayor, “very liberal” Jennifer Roberts. Guilt by association works in politics.
Liberal bashing worked in the past. The late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms used it to perfection, and his pronunciation of the word – “libruhl” – curdled the brie of the state’s Volvo drivers. But it doesn’t appear to be working in 2016.
Today’s electorate is different. It’s truly purple, neither solidly Democratic nor Republican, nor majority conservative. Every year, North Carolina’s cities and suburbs grow faster than the slow-growing, or not-growing, rural areas.
Remember, Barack Obama won this state in 2008, when he ran as the liberal alternative to moderate Hillary Clinton.
When liberal bashing worked for Helms, Gov. Jim Martin and Lt. Gov. Jim Gardner, conservatives ran with conservative presidential candidates, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush. This year, a reasonable argument can be made that Hillary Clinton is more conservative than Donald Trump, even if he’s not liberal.
Liberal bashing also demands a conservative issue, like tax increases. But in the gubernatorial race, McCrory’s claim to have cut taxes is undercut by the reality of the GOP’s “tax cut.” It lowered income taxes for the affluent but expanded the sales tax and eliminated income tax deductions and credits.
The main issue of the 2016 campaign, however, isn’t the so-called tax cut, it is HB 2, the bathroom bill that has cost North Carolina jobs and entertainment dollars. Cooper on Oct.11 and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Deb Ross last Thursday night wrapped HB 2 around the necks of their opponents as effectively as Bush tied Willie Horton to the esophagus of Michael Dukakis in 1988. For example, HB 2 is not playing well in especially hard hit Cary, a town of 150,00 people, many of whom are traditionally GOP-friendly college-educated voters.
Cooper may have been called liberal in the debate, but he tied McCrory to the libertine Donald Trump.
Liberal bashing has worked in the past, but it does not appear to be effective in a year when conservatives are running with Donald Trump and away from HB 2.
Paul O’Connor has written about North Carolina state government and politics for 35 years, He teaches at the School of Media and Journalism at UNC.