It’s remarkable now, but Pat McCrory once won elections with ease. For 14 years as Charlotte mayor, the Republican cruised through general elections in what was gradually becoming a Democratic city. He was popular and considered a choice prospect for governor in 2008. And he built his success on a platform of moderate politics.
In those days, McCrory was what he later called an “Eisenhower Republican.” The Ike reference was chiefly derived from their shared support for transportation infrastructure. As mayor, McCrory’s prime accomplishment was the construction of a light rail system that is now a fixture of life in Charlotte. To pay for it, he advocated–and won–a sales tax increase. Certainly, this was no right-wing ideologue.
As he made the transition to statewide politics, McCrory attempted to keep his moderate image intact. Though he pandered to the right on stem cell research–and paid for that bit of cynicism in November–his 2008 campaign stressed such themes as education and clean government. In his 2012 outing, he rarely delved into the social issues that animated his party’s evangelical base, focusing instead on an assertion that North Carolina government was “broken” and needed to be fixed by a pragmatic manager.
It was in his first months as governor, speaking to an audience at Jim Hunt’s Institute for Emerging Issues, that McCrory first called himself an “Eisenhower Republican.” The claim had already begun to deflate. Within a month of taking office, then-Governor McCrory had signed the largest cuts to a state joblessness program in the 80-year history of Unemployment Insurance. In contrast, Eisenhower’s whole political program was centered on a reconciliation of Republicanism to the New Deal welfare state.
McCrory’s journey to the extreme right continued apace for the next three years, culminating in the historic debacle of HB2. Over the course of seven tumultuous months between his late-night signing of the bill and his defeat in November 2016, he embraced the cries of social conservatives that a radical “transgenderism” was threatening America’s social fabric. His administration argued in court that trans people do not exist, that their gender identity is the product of “mental illness.” He said that (fellow Republican) Caitlyn Jenner would have to use the men’s showers if she ran track at UNC.
By the time he left office, McCrory was a politician transformed. His new ideology was complemented and amplified by a rising bitterness and anger at having been defeated by Roy Cooper, a far superior political talent to his own. Now, as he ramps up a campaign for US Senate, McCrory has taken his cultural zeal to its logical 2021 conclusion: He is a Trumper. At the end of his announcement video, this man who once presented himself as a pragmatist invoked the slogan “America First.”
I suspect that McCrory is at best dimly aware of the contradictions that suffuse his political career. He knows almost nothing about the substance of governing. For example, he once claimed that Iraqi sects united against the United States–as opposed to fighting a civil war against each other, which was the sanguinary truth. At any rate, McCrory is a man without any principles that last longer than political convenience necessitates. He is a pol without a core.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.