– Patrick O’Hannigan, Civitas Contributor
Governor Roy Cooper’s “State of the State” address to the General Assembly and its broadcast audience merits another look, not so much for what the governor said as for what he did not say. If you saw the “hot takes” from Bob Luebke and Ray Nothstine after that speech, then you already know that Cooper hopes legislators join him in a bipartisan effort to grow government and spend more taxpayer money.
Reporters at the News & Observer ran Cooper through a gentle fact-checking exercise, rating his assertions as true, mostly true, “stalled,” or “in the works.” Anyone familiar with rhetorical sleight-of-hand sees immediately that those last two judgments (used for tuition-free community college programs and efforts to bring average salaries for public school teachers up to the national mean) absolve the governor himself of any responsibility for failure.
If an initiative is “stalled” or “in the works,” then prevailing newsroom sentiment has it that Cooper should be forgiven for touting it as an accomplishment, because at least he’s trying. Meanwhile, however, few people question our governor’s assumptions. Perception matters.
Cooper knows how to sound folksy, and how to ask for applause by quickening his cadence and raising the pitch of his voice. Yet his speech used even Hurricane Florence for political purposes. It seemed more smooth than determined.
With regard to state spending on education, for example, raising average teacher pay has become the piñata at which every politician takes a swing.. You’re not supposed to ask whether jacking per-pupil expenditures thru the roof improves student performance on standardized tests or college admissions, much less whether raising teacher salaries involves tradeoffs in other areas.
Governor Cooper wants us to do a better job of supporting public education, but he treats “public” as a synonym for “taxpayer-funded,” rather than in the broader sense of relating to “all the people or the whole area of a nation or state.” There were no bouquets in his speech for charter schools, private schools, or homeschooling parents, all of which educate younger members of the public.
A recent Civitas poll on school choice revealed that nearly a quarter of the children in North Carolina attend charter, private, or home schools. But Cooper sees their parents as rivals rather than as allies. When he said, “Our message to educators should be clear: We trust you to educate our children,” the governor was talking only to dues-paying NEA members with North Carolina zip codes. They’re the teachers who can be used as props in future State-of-the-State addresses.
What Governor Cooper means by “public” in education does not carry over into other political conversations. That’s clear from what he said about House Bill 2, where his argument about what we still have to do and “who we really are” clearly included every state resident, not just taxpayers.
“When I took office, House Bill 2 was hurting North Carolinians and holding our economy back,” he said. “Two years ago, I stood right here before you and said we must repeal it. And with bipartisan support, HB2 is gone.”
“But there’s more to do to fight discrimination,” he added. “We must show the rest of the nation and the world who we really are: a state that values diversity, that is welcoming, and that is open for business.”
What the governor did not mention were the assumptions behind that plea. Cowed as he had been by the fallout from crusading executives who withheld business from North Carolina because they felt HB2 was discriminatory, Cooper sailed instinctively into the sheltered harbor of Diversity and Inclusion without stopping to ask what those words mean, or why invoking them does not ensure charitable treatment for people who think, for example, that expanding Medicaid to cover 500,000 more enrollees will not actually help poor people get healthcare. Cooper also showed contempt for anyone opposed to Medicaid expansion by asserting that a respected pediatrician in Boone believes we should expand it. Republicans did not in turn ask whether expertise in medicine was the same as expertise in economics.
Cooper has no time for anyone who thinks that people in rural areas suffer more from opioid abuse and food insecurity than from lack of access to broadband Internet, because it’s lack of rural broadband infrastructure that he called “a monster of a problem.”
He closed the address with a list of constituents used as setup lines so that he could say half a dozen times, “Are we willing to help them? It’s time!” The rhythmic phrasing in that pep talk portion of the speech paid homage to Shakespeare (think of Mark Antony repeating in his oration for Caesar’s funeral that “Brutus is an honorable man.” Skilled actors say that with the same inflection that the rest of us dial up for “Bless your heart!”). Governor Cooper’s redundancy also advanced the idea that disagreement with one of his proposals amounts to cruelty or timidity.
Despite what he says about working together, Governor Cooper is as cheerfully partisan as they come. Of course the same could be said about other politicians, but North Carolina’s motto, “Esse quam videri” (Latin for “to be rather than to seem”) warns against hypocrisy. Our chief executive ought to be mindful of that.
Patrick O’Hannigan is a Civitas contributor, a father of two, and a technical writer and editor. He resides in Morrisville, North Carolina.