Kinder, gentler image; same mean-spirited policies

By: - November 20, 2013 6:00 am
Governor and First Lady McCrory host dog adoption at Governor’s mansion. (Photo: Facebook page of Gov. Pat McCrory.)

The Governor tries a new P.R. strategy even as his administration turns up the pain

Let Reagan be Reagan”: That was one of the best known battle cries for conservatives during the 1980’s. The premise was that if his supposedly-wimpy handlers had simply let the 40th President say what was really on his mind, a big chunk of the public would have followed – even if what he said was abjectly reactionary or just plain crazy.

Could it be that we’re witnessing a kind of modern-day version of this phenomenon with North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory? Is there a growing effort by his handlers to “let McCrory be McCrory?”

Puppy love

A look at the revamped public image the Governor has been trying to project in recent weeks seems to indicate as much. Gone suddenly, is the harsh, beleaguered, “everyone is out to get me” McCrory who approved and lamely tried to explain and defend draconian policy changes cooked up by his budget director and the General Assembly and then lashed out venomously and, at times, dishonestly at critics and imagined conspiracies.

And the new image – how can one describe it? Well, let’s put it this way: the Governor’s Press Office has issued 18 official releases in the last two weeks and five – count ‘em five – have been about being nice to dogs. We are not making this up – check ‘em out.

Yes, the same man who, in one of the early, cringe-inducing moments of the last gubernatorial campaign famously called his own dog by different names at the beginning and end of a campaign ad is now all about warm and fuzzy feelings when it comes to pets.

Now, in fairness, the Governor’s wife has long championed humaneness toward animals (in the safe, non-controversial, non-PETA-like way, of course) and the Governor did support a bill to curb abuses in “puppy mills,” but the new, “I love pets” P.R. onslaught is clearly no accident. Somebody, somewhere in the administration has recognized that for a politician with abysmal poll numbers, there are few cheaper or easier ways to warm up to an easily distracted public.

And puppy love is not the only component of the Governor’s new, kinder and gentler image. On issue after issue, the new McCrory is substantially “touchier-feelier.” Whether he’s suddenly talking about public school teachers having “legitimate gripes” and hinting at pay raises for 2014 after slashing education in 2013, touting food banks or even publicly honoring a crusading African-American civil rights hero (albeit, weirdly, with one hour’s notice to the media and the public), McCrory has started to more closely resemble the cheerleading, back-patting politician who presided over the Charlotte City Council for 14 years than the crusading, right-wing ideologue who dominated the news during the spring and summer.

Check out some of these other highly controversial positions the Governor has staked out in recent weeks:

The new, kill-them-with-kindness approach seems even to have trickled down to the Department of Health and Human Services where McCrory’s most embattled cabinet secretary, Aldona Wos, is attempting a makeover of her own. Wos, who has famously alienated reporters, DHHS employees, advocates for people in need and just about anyone else in her way with bizarre edicts, strange appointments, a far-right privatization agenda and an unrepentant defense of exorbitant salaries for recent college grads, is now playing the smile game too. In the newest DHHS newsletter, four of the six puff piece stories feature cheerful photos of Wos surrounded by adoring admirers.

Glossing over two hard truths

Though probably effective to some degree in softening the administration’s image in the short run, the new kinder, gentler approach faces two giant and closely related hurdles come 2014 and beyond.

First of all, unlike as was the case with Reagan, “letting McCrory be McCrory” is not about giving license to an iconic conservative ideologue to speak his mind unabashedly; rather it’s about letting a normally affable, not-terribly-deep guy whose primary skills lie in sales to act like, well, a friendly salesman.

And while smiles and superficial, “I-feel-your-pain” chat worked well most of the time for a part-time mayor/civic booster, they will likely only get him so far as a governor selling a distinctly hard-edged and unhappy product. Moreover, in the long run, the Governor’s far right base is going to demand more than just happy talk. These people aim to pass a radical, long-lasting societal overhaul – a task that demands the grim, see-it-through determination and commitment of a crusading general, not the perky banter and sympathetic hugs of a game show host.

Maybe there’s a way. Perhaps the Governor aims (and will be content) to serve out his term as just a happy pitchman for plutocracy. Indeed, some accused Reagan of this. It seems like a tough row to hoe, however.

This is especially true in light of hurdle Number Two – namely, the utter disconnect between McCrory’s recent messaging and his administration’s underlying mission and performance—at least thus far. The simple fact is that when it comes to core policies, nothing has changed. The Governor can hug all the dogs he wants, but at some point, North Carolinians will demand coherent explanations for policies he is implementing and enforcing that are demonstrably lowering the living standards and life prospects of hundreds of thousands and enriching large corporations and the wealthy.

Right now, with the legislature blessedly scarce, the Governor can busy himself with proclamations and ribbon cuttings, but before long, the Berger-Tillis-Pope troops will return armed with another new and aggressively reactionary agenda. The protests and national ridicule will soon follow – probably with even more support and intensity than before.

And when these forces converge, it’s hard to believe that mere cheerfulness and superficial sympathy will be enough to get the job done.

Photo: Facebook page of Gov. Pat McCrory

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.