Political Hay


One governor's gaffe became a viral sensation. But was she really joking?

By 9.30.11

RALEIGH, N.C. -- First it was a joke. Then hyperbole. Then sarcasm. Now, it's anyone's guess what she actually meant.

While addressing voters at a Rotary Club meeting near Raleigh on Tuesday, North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, suggested a novel solution to America's problems: cancel the 2012 congressional elections.

"I think we ought to suspend, perhaps, elections for Congress for two years and just tell them we won't hold it against them, whatever decisions they make, to just let them help this country recover," Perdue said. "I really hope that someone can agree with me on that. You want people who don't worry about the next election."

All it took was a tweet from a local reporter for Perdue's election-canceling ways to go viral. By the time the Drudge Report and Rush Limbaugh picked up the remarks, Perdue's team was in full damage-control mode.

"Come on. Gov. Perdue was obviously using hyperbole …" an aide to the governor told the media. Later, Perdue said she meant to be sarcastic. "We really just need to encourage our leaders who are elected to work together and solve America's problems," she said.

North Carolina's punditry collectively scratched their heads, however, when audio of Perdue's bizarre suggestion emerged. It's obvious she isn't joking. For a joke to be a joke, there are prerequisites. A big one is that someone needs to laugh, or at least chuckle. I don't care if it's one person in the back row. If no one laughs -- as no one did after Perdue's comment (heck, there isn't even nervous coughing) -- it's not a joke, whatever was intended. To try to spin Perdue's remark as jest is funnier than the original remark.

Hyperbole? Perhaps. Sarcasm? None that I can detect, and I've listened to many press conferences and speeches by the governor.

Apparently, Perdue's humor is so deadpan even she didn't realize she was joking.

Republicans couldn't pass up a political opportunity this ripe for the picking. They gleefully pounced. "It took [the governor's staff] three hours to say it was a 'joke,' but when that flopped, it became 'hyperbole.' We'll just call it an unconstitutionally bad idea," said GOP spokesman Rob Lockwood.

So, what to make of Perdue's comment? To comprehend fully, one must understand the present political dynamics in North Carolina. At the national level, the Tar Heel State is ground zero for the 2012 presidential race. To gauge how seriously President Obama takes winning the state, look at where the Democratic National Convention will be held next year: Charlotte.

At the state level, it's a different picture. For the first time since Reconstruction, Republicans are picking up steam. The GOP reclaimed both chambers of the state legislature in 2010. (As a colleague of mine said, maybe Perdue meant to say that the 2010 election should have been canceled). If a GOP-friendly redistricting plan holds up in court, Republicans have a solid shot at controlling the state house for the next decade, and beyond.

The scenario is equally dire for Democrats at the gubernatorial level. Two words explain why Perdue won her first term in 2008: Obama's coattails. Then-candidate Obama's ground game in North Carolina was astounding, and the year decidedly favored Democrats running for state office. Even so, Perdue barely eked out a win by 144,969 votes out of over 4 million cast.

Since assuming office in 2009, Perdue's approval rating has fluctuated from 30 percent to 25 percent to 42 percent. She's had a difficult time keeping the liberal base of her party happy while obeying a constitutional requirement to run a balanced budget.

A Republican challenger -- the leading contender is former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory -- has a better than even chance of knocking her off next year, when Republicans will undisputedly do better than in 2008. Behind the scenes, there is talk of a primary challenge to Perdue from the ranks of her own party.

All that to say this: Perdue wasn't serious about canceling elections. She couldn't have been, if only for political reasons. Perdue isn't Exhibit A for "disciplined politician," but she isn't tone-deaf. Legitimately suggesting that elections be scrubbed is a losing proposition all the way around, particularly because she can't initiate a single action to make it happen. The truth is that Perdue made an unfortunate off-the-cuff remark, resulting in disastrous consequences.

At the same time, it's fair to call the comment a Freudian slip. Still reeling from the 2010 shellacking, and pensively anticipating another brutal trip to the electoral whipping post next year, Perdue let slip a private fantasy nursed by North Carolina Democrats: man, wouldn't it be great to do away with this whole democracy thing?

Another potential scenario is that Perdue was piggybacking off a recent essay penned by Peter Orzsag, President Obama's former director of the Office of Management and Budget.

"To solve the serious problems facing our country, we need to minimize the harm from legislative inertia by relying more on automatic policies and depoliticized commissions for certain policy decisions," Orzsag wrote. "In other words, radical as it sounds, we need to counter the gridlock of our political institutions by making them a bit less democratic."

In the end, the flap over Perdue's faux pas will have a short half-life. The state's unemployment rate is 10.4 percent. That will be the narrative of the 2012 gubernatorial election. The remark will work its way into a political ad next year. Beyond that, it won't last another week, despite Republicans' attempts to prolong it.

That leaves one remaining task: deciding whether the scandal should be dubbed "jokegate," "hyperbolegate," or "sarcasmgate."

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About the Author
David N. Bass is a journalist who writes from the Old North State. Follow him on Twitter.