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How Pat McCrory can save his political career

By Jim Jenkins
The (Raleigh) News & Observer

Gary Pearce once was a top-notch reporter for The News & Observer who had a keen eye on state politics, a quick wit and a perception about public figures that, after he left the business, he applied to helping a farm kid from Rock Ridge win four terms as governor. And had Jim Hunt won his U.S. Senate bid against incumbent Jesse Helms in 1984, thus raising his national profile, Pearce and the other members of the “Hunt crowd” could well have wound up in the White House.

So when Pearce, now a private consultant, breaks a little ground on his political analysis blog, those of whom he speaks ought to pay attention.

Recently, he raised an issue that’s been discussed quietly in Raleigh: whether Gov. Pat McCrory can regroup, after a seemingly endless series of gaffes, and run for a second term. And, Pearce writes, some have even speculated that McCrory won’t even want a second term. People are wondering, Pearce says, whether McCrory is “in over his head.”

It’s too early, of course, to line up the moving vans. He’s only eight months in, and that makes it easy for his allies to dismiss his critics.

But the cushion of time alone isn’t enough to protect the governor’s chances of winning a second term. He needs to alter his agenda, reorder his staff, acknowledge his administration’s mistakes and change his approach.

The partisan divide in the state is wide and deep, but McCrory would do well to study the administration and the political skill of, yes, Jim Hunt.

Hunt has offered his blueprint for how to be governor many times. A governor, he says, no matter what party, has to have a clear view of what he or she wants to do; there has to be a team in place, a group of true believers who subscribe to that agenda and burn to get it done; the governor has to be willing to sell the plan in hamlets and big cities; a governor makes the necessary political deals, within reason; and a governor faces his critics but keeps his animus to himself.

The truth is, that formula has worked in the White House as well. Ronald Reagan had a set of firm beliefs and stuck to them (even when his economic policies wavered) but talked often with Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill. Bill Clinton made a deal on welfare reform at one point he didn’t want to make but overall he dominated politics for eight years. Both these presidents had strong agendas and stood for them.

The best example was Franklin Roosevelt, who steamrolled past those who opposed the New Deal and its life-saving programs to pull Americans from the Depression.

McCrory needs to clarify his vision and think about what he really believes. He needs to form a close team around him, people he knows and not just the professional “handlers.” He needs to acknowledge the stumbles and mistakes, from the inflated salaries for two 24-year-olds in the Health and Human Services bureaucracy to the mysterious resignation of a Cabinet secretary to the little things like the ill-timed cookie delivery to the implication the he mingled with Moral Monday protesters when he didn’t.

The governor can move past all that, but he’s got to learn to admit when he goofs and move on.

He also needs to assert his independence from Republican legislative leaders who just rebuked him by overriding two relatively minor vetoes. GOP leaders couldn’t give their governor even a little victory.

For McCrory, this ought to be a lesson. He might as well strike out on his own because the Republicans on Jones Street aren’t going to watch his back. If he disagrees with them, why hold back? Unfortunately, he’s appeared to bend to the will of legislative leaders when it comes to abortion and voting rights, surrendering even a measure of independent leadership, and yet when the leaders had a chance to give him a little ground on vetoes, they pushed him around on the schoolyard again.

McCrory has plenty of time to turn things around. He has an affable personality and when he’s made speeches to nonpolitical groups around the state, he’s left a good impression. But now he must bear down and define himself and the things he really wants to accomplish. Then he should push that agenda even when his own allies turn about to be … not exactly that.

Jim Jenkins is the deputy editorial page editor of the (Raleigh) News & Observer. Email: jjenkins@newsobserver.com.
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