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Guest Column: The 16-year itch – it’s due in 2024

By Gary Pearce

There’s a 16-year cycle in modern politics. If it holds, the 2022 and 2024 elections will be good for Democrats – nationally and in North Carolina. But that’s a big if.

In 1960, 1976, 1992 and 2008, Democrats won the White House. Each time, North Carolina went, or nearly went, Democratic for President. Each time, Democrats did well in state elections. Each time, Democrats did well in the preceding congressional elections – 1958, 1974, 1990 and 2006.

Each time, Republicans had been in the White House at least eight years. The GOP had gone stale or seemed out of touch. Democrats nominated appealing candidates who promised change and presented a strong contrast to the past.

In 1960, President Dwight Eisenhower’s Republican Party seemed old and stodgy. Democrats nominated candidates who represented a new generation and new energy – John F. Kennedy for President and Terry Sanford for Governor.

In 1976, after eight years of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Vietnam and Watergate, Democrats nominated a Southerner and Washington outsider, Jimmy Carter, for President and 39-year-old Jim Hunt for Governor.

In 1992, after 12 years of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, Republicans didn’t seem to feel Americans’ economic pain. Democrats nominated another Southerner and Washington outsider, Bill Clinton, and Jim Hunt, again, for Governor.

In 2008, after eight years of George W. Bush, wars in the Middle East and a financial crisis, Democrats nominated Barack Obama. His message of hope and change stirred minority voters and young voters, a surge that helped elect Kay Hagan Senator and Bev Perdue Governor.

Kennedy, Carter and Obama all carried North Carolina. Clinton came close – losing by less than 1%, after Reagan won here by 24% in 1984 and Bush, by 16% in 1988.

Democrats hope the cycle repeats itself again in 2024. But there will be one obvious difference: The incumbent President won’t be a Republican.

That may not be such a big difference, though. If Donald Trump runs again, he’ll be like an incumbent. Even out of office, he looms over the political landscape. He still dominates the Republican Party.

Looking back, his Presidency wasn’t good for Republicans. In 2018, they lost the House. In 2020, they lost the White House. On January 5 this year, they lost two Senate races in Georgia and lost the Senate – a huge political story that was overshadowed by the Capitol attack January 6.

But Republicans can take heart from another political cycle. They do well when they run against Democratic overreach. Reagan ran against the welfare state in 1980. Newt Gingrich & Co. ran against the Clintons’ healthcare plan in 1994. The Tea Party rose up against President Obama and Obamacare in 2010. Trump ran against Obama and the Clintons in 2016.

In 2024, Democrats will ask: Do you want four more years of Trump? Republicans will ask: Do you want four more years of Biden/Harris?

The battle lines are being drawn. Biden is pushing a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill. A Morning Consult poll said 77% of Americans support it, including 59% of Republicans. But Republicans in Congress unanimously oppose it.

Will voters think Republicans are obstructionists – or that Democrats are overreaching?

Or, if the pandemic recedes and the economy recovers, Biden could reach back 40 years and reprise Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign: “It’s morning again in America. Our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?”

Gary Pearce was a reporter and editor at The News & Observer, a political consultant, and an adviser to Governor Jim Hunt (1976-1984 and 1992-2000). He blogs about politics and public policy at www.NewDayforNC.com.  

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