Harris-Cooper 2024? 2028? Don’t be daft

Atlantic mini-profile is Parachute Journalism 101

Days before the second impeachment trial* of Donald Trump, Atlantic staff writer Edward-Isaac Dovere dropped a pebble in North Carolina’s political waters. He suggested Democrats nationally could learn from Gov. Roy Cooper — even suggesting (based on conversations with “political obsessives”) that Cooper “could offer a compelling balance to Vice President Kamala Harris as the white male Democratic governor of an important swing state.”

To which anyone with the slightest knowledge of North Carolina politics should have responded: AYFKM? (SFW translation, Are You Freaking Kidding Me?) The profile, while including plenty of disclaimers, still comes out as an example of parachute journalism: Reporter has idea, drops into town, and convinces editors to run the story even though the writer exhibits scant local knowledge and produces a story lacking context.

Yes, Cooper has won six statewide elections in a row, four for attorney general and two for governor. Both he and Donald Trump have carried the state twice. In November, Cooper got about 80,000 more votes than did Trump. (Trump “beat” Cooper by about 50,000 votes in 2016.) Cooper won even as Republicans maintained control of the General Assembly, both U.S. Senate seats, six of the 10 elected executive branch offices, and swept the eight statewide judicial races.

Until recently, Cooper also got high marks in opinion polls for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID fatigue is setting in, though, especially when it comes to plans not to reopen public schools.

But let me list several reasons Cooper won’t run alongside Kamala Harris, in 2024, 2028, or later. 

  • Unimpressive legislative record. As The Atlantic story concedes, Cooper has failed to deliver on his signature campaign promises: Expand Medicaid under Obamacare; “reform” the corporate tax code; and raise teacher pay to the mythical national average. His failures amount to successes for North Carolinians, but as a effective politician, he falls short. (I’ll link to the work my team at Carolina Journal did over the years.) 

    • The state’s Medicaid program was a disaster when Cooper’s predecessor, Pat McCrory arrived, and it remains a mess. It’s taken five years for Cooper to agree to shift the current Medicaid system to a managed-care model. Expanding its reach would merely throw good money after bad without improving health care for recipients.

    • The GOP-led General Assembly streamlined the corporate tax code and all-but-eliminated the corporate income tax. Cooper wants to return to graduated rates and more complexity, letting the state rather than the marketplace pick winners and losers. N.C. ranks 10th nationally in the Tax Foundation’s most recent State Business Tax Climate Index, tops among neighboring states.

    • N.C. K-12 teacher pay has risen steadily despite Cooper routinely vetoing bills including pay raises. His constant refrain: Not enough. He’s failed to raise teacher pay, all right, because he’s failed to compromise with lawmakers.

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  • Cooper has skeletons that would be easy for opposition researchers to unearth.

    • Thanks largely to Carolina Journal reporting, the governor garnered a lot of attention for a purported “slush fund” his administration secretly negotiated with (some say extorted from) the utilities that would have operated the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a major source of fracked natural gas spanning four states. But lawsuits from environmentalists killed the pipeline. The legislature also muddied the waters by claiming control of the fund, even though lawmakers initially argued it was an illegal form of “ill-gotten gains.” (Timeline here.)  

    • The governor also showed a vicious nasty streak in his handling of a lawsuit filed against his 2000 campaign committee. Short version: Cooper OK’d an ad in the final days of his campaign for attorney general against Republican Dan Boyce that smeared the law firm where Dan, his father Gene, and two other lawyers worked. The lawyers filed a defamation lawsuit against Cooper and his committee. Cooper used legal maneuvers to keep the lawsuit alive for 14 years. Cooper eventually apologized but has claimed no other liability. (Speculation: Cooper wanted Gene Boyce, who’s approaching 90, to die before the lawsuit ended.) Gene’s a friend who has lived an amazing life. For starters, he was assistant majority counsel for the Nixon Senate Watergate Committee and was the lead investigator who discovered Nixon’s secret taping system. Cooper was just plain vindictive.

  • He’s charisma-challenged. Just watch any of the virtual news conferences he’s held at least weekly since the COVID-19 pandemic hit a year ago. At the podium, he’s stiff, cautious, quick to lecture. When challenged, he resembles a testy elementary school teacher. He’s a decent retail politician, but he can’t play a big room. Most people can’t. But those seeking to win over a national audience in a video age need some of those skills. (Kamala Harris shares some of those traits, so Cooper wouldn’t fill a void in Harris’ campaign style if they ran on the same ticket.)

  • He’s in his happy zone. I’ve long said Bob Dole’s decision to run for president in 1996 was a huge mistake, not only because he was a lousy candidate for his time but also because Dole had his ideal job: Republican leader in the U.S. Senate. Dole loved the Senate (as do Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer). The presidency wouldn’t have been a good fit. I think much the same of Roy Cooper. As you can see, I have problems with him. But he’s comfortable as a leader in North Carolina politics. He probably had not qualms turning down two opportunities to run for U.S. Senate during off-year elections — in 2010 against Richard Burr and, presumably, in 2022 to fill the retiring Burr’s open seat. A termed-out Cooper might consider running against Thom Tillis in 2026, but the governor would be pushing 70. And he’d probably prefer attending Carolina Hurricanes and UNC basketball games to shuttling back and forth to D.C.

    Screenshot from WRAL video
  • Biden ain’t going anywhere, voluntarily. One of the rumors circulating after Joe Biden locked up the Democratic nomination was that he was merely a placeholder. He even hinted as much by picking Harris as VP, calling himself a “transitional candidate.” I never bought the rumors. Joe Biden has been running for president for nearly four decades. Now that he’s won, he’s not stepping aside unless he truly becomes incapacitated. He’s planning to run in 2024, too. No president plans to serve only one term. Biden was given every opportunity to hint at that possibility as the campaign closed. Nope. Didn’t do it. Won’t do it. If Biden’s unable to finish his tenure, and a new vice president is picked, bet that it’ll be someone younger than Harris, not older.

The Atlantic’s Dovere quoted prominent GOP consultant Jim Blaine, who said Cooper “is an astute, careful, and talented politician who has had the most valuable thing in politics, and that is absolutely impeccable timing.” 

This matches discussions I’ve had about Cooper with other political observers. If the conversation lasts more than a couple of minutes, you’ll always hear terms like “cautious,” “risk-averse,” or “wary.”

Dovere’s conversation with Blaine should have fueled the reporter’s curiosity — and a desire to gain more relevant knowledge about his subject.

*I caught that one too late. Mea culpa.