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Gary Pearce: Cooper, Biden in similar boats

By Gary Pearce

Gov. Roy Cooper and President-elect Joe Biden are similar politicians who face similar challenges the next four years.

Both will have tough Republican opposition in Congress and the legislature. Both must deal with the COVID-19 crisis and an economic crisis. Both lead a Democratic Party that is pulled between moderates and progressives.

And, for both, it’s four years and out. Cooper can’t run again in 2024, and Biden will be 82 years old.

Both have backgrounds that helped them in an election torn between red states and blue states, red counties and blue counties. Biden is the working-class kid from Scranton, Pennsylvania. Cooper grew up in rural Nash County and worked on his family’s farm.

Both have long experience in elected office, nearly 50 years for Biden and over 30 years for Cooper.

Biden was elected to the New Castle County Council in 1970, at age 28. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972, served there 36 years and was vice president for eight years.

Cooper was elected to the North Carolina House in 1986, at age 29. He was appointed to a Senate vacancy in 1991 and elected majority leader in 1997. He was elected Attorney General in 2000 and Governor in 2016.

Both have done one of the toughest things in politics: beat an incumbent. Cooper unseated Governor Pat McCrory. Biden beat a two-term incumbent for the Senate and this year overcame widespread doubts by winning the nomination and defeating President Trump.

Cooper’s steady leadership through the pandemic helped him win reelection by 4.5% even as Biden lost North Carolina by 1.3%.

Some Democrats are concerned that Cooper didn’t win by more. Polls had shown him leading by double digits. But, before the election, one of Cooper’s campaign strategists noted that the polls showed Cooper getting 52-53%, and predicted that’s where the Governor would end up. He got 51.5%.

Now comes the tough part: governing.

Biden’s biggest challenge is Mitch McConnell; Cooper’s is Phil Berger.

Both McConnell and Berger are powerful Senate leaders who have been implacable foes of Democrats’ ideas. McConnell has blocked Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s sweeping Covid relief bills. Berger has blocked Cooper’s plans to expand Medicaid and significantly raise teachers’ pay.

Over the years, Biden earned a reputation as a “Republican whisperer,” a Democrat who could talk with and work with Republican bulls like McConnell, Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond.

His skill will be tested now, unless Democrats win both Georgia runoffs. Then Biden’s challenge would be reining in Democrats’ overreach.

Unlike Biden, Cooper doesn’t have a Democratic House. Like Biden, his instinct is to negotiate and seek compromise. That didn’t work in Cooper’s first term. This year, he drew battle lines and tried to elect Democratic majorities in the legislature. That didn’t work either.

Cooper has named a bipartisan, blue-ribbon, business-heavy commission to push Medicaid expansion. He believes that’s a popular issue, and he hopes Republicans will compromise.

Both Biden and Cooper have to navigate tricky currents in their own party, the tensions between moderates and progressives that surfaced again after an election that was largely disappointing to Democrats.

How will Biden shape his party’s future? Will he groom Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as his successor?

Which Democrat might succeed Cooper, and what role will he play in that? Cooper also can play a national party role; he’s chairman-elect of the Democratic Governors Association.

As chief executives and party leaders, Biden and Cooper have to keep in mind the 2020 election’s lesson: the American people are tired of President Trump, but they don’t trust the Democrats.

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 government at www.NewDayforNC.com.

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