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President Trump wanted Mexico’s President to stop saying Mexico wouldn’t pay for the wall so he called him but when Pena Nieto came on the line he told Trump the last thing Trump wanted to hear: He said he could never agree for Mexico to pay for the wall.

Trump purred, told Pena Nieto he’d stated his position “beautifully,” then made his first move: He said the U.S. had a $60 billion trade deficit with Mexico and he wanted to put a border tariff on Mexican imports. A lot of factories, Trump said, in Ohio and Michigan had closed and a lot of people had lost their jobs and he’d won both states and after he won people had been dancing in the streets.

No one gets people to rallies like I did, Trump said.  

That sounds like Trump’s vanity getting the better of him but, I expect, there’s more to it than that: Donald Trump is a rare American archetype, a chief in a tiny tribe of men who live atop New York skyscrapers and make deals and share a code and Trump had just repeated a formula that had worked for years: Schmooze, threaten, and boast.

Trump made his next move: He told Pena Nieto he had to stop saying Mexico wouldn’t pay for the wall – instead, Trump said, We should both say, ‘We will work it out.’ As opposed to you saying, ‘We will not pay’ and me saying, ‘We will not pay.’

It didn’t work. Pena Nieto didn’t blink. He said: This is what I suggest. Let us stop talking about the wall. Period. Otherwise, Nieto added, he’d go right on saying Mexico wouldn’t pay for the wall.

That wasn’t what Trump wanted to hear: You cannot say that to the press. I cannot live with that. You cannot say that to the press, he said – then he repeated the formula: Schmooze, threaten, boast.

But Pena Nieto didn’t budge.

Seven hours later Trump picked up the telephone to make another call to tell Australia’s Prime Minister he wanted to cancel the agreement – Obama had made – that required America to take 1,250 refugees from Australia.

Repeating the formula he told Malcolm Turnbull how he loved Australia and how he loved the Australian people but then hammered home one point: Over and over Trump told Turnbull ‘this deal is going to kill me’ – the deal, he said, would make him look ‘stupid,’ ‘terrible,’ ‘foolish’ and like a ‘dope.’  

He didn’t argue the deal was wrong or wicked instead he said over and over it would make him look bad which sounded vain too but that wasn’t the whole story: To dealmakers living atop New York skyscrapers mistakes are a problem but looking bad is worse. Looking bad is a cardinal sin. And Trump knew it in his bones. It was part of the code. And he wanted Turnbull to understand what he was asking Trump to do was an outrage.

But Turnbull didn’t budge.

He bluntly told Trump ‘a deal is a deal’ and Trump, vexed, told Turnbull, I’ve had it. I’ve been making these calls all day and this is the most unpleasant call all day. Putin was a pleasant call. This is ridiculous.

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Yesterday I described how Gary and I met in 1984 (to negotiate the Helms-Hunt debates) and how I didn’t lay eyes on Gary again for eight years – until the morning he walked into the boardroom of a law firm downtown to negotiate a debate between Lauch Faircloth and Terry Sanford, saw me sitting there, and said, We’ve got to stop meeting like this.

Gary sat down and the Broadcasters Association’s attorney handed everyone an agreement – setting out the debate rules – then started ticking through the points to see if anyone disagreed.

Point one, fine.

Point two, fine.

Point three, fine.

Then he came to a provision that said neither Lauch Faircloth or Terry Sanford could use footage from the debate in their TV ads – in the past I had always deleted that paragraph but Lauch, for all his attributes, was not a world-class debater. As soon as the lawyer finished reading the provision Gary stared straight at me – waiting. Then he said, I guess, this time, neither of us wants the other candidate using debate footage in his ads.

I said, Amen.

Sitting in opposite camps, still not trusting one another, without expecting it, we’d landed on common ground.

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A TAPster had good advice for Trump in light of yesterday’s news conference: “It should be a basic rule of politics to not say nice things about Nazis.”

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Now that even the morally obtuse Trump has been forced to say white racist terrorism is wrong, we move on to a knottier issue: Should Confederate statues and memorials stay, or should they go?

Here’s a case in point. If you drive down Hillsborough Street toward the State Capitol in Raleigh, you come to a somewhat phallic memorial that reads, “To Our Confederate Dead.”

Stay? Or go?

I say go.

The Confederates fought for slavery. They went to war to preserve the proposition that human beings should be allowed to own other human beings – and abuse, overwork and mistreat them at will.

They also took up arms against the United States of America. Some might call that treason.

Both slavery and secession were wrong. We ought to say they were wrong. We ought to take down any statue or monument – especially on public property – that honors a moral wrong.

To be clear, no one should do this unlawfully or through violence. You do it through the political process.

I know what the other side of this argument will be: It’s heritage, not hate; we should honor our history and appreciate our ancestors; that was a different time; they thought they were fighting for their way of life; we should recognize their sacrifices, suffering and bravery in battle, etc.

And I welcome anyone who wants to argue the other side. Especially if you do it without personal insults.

I was torn myself when I first pondered this question. But then I thought: How would I feel if I were African-American? How would I feel about North Carolina honoring people who enslaved, tortured and murdered my ancestors?

Take ‘em down.

Posted in: Issues, Raleigh
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The other night Gary and I spoke at Quail Ridge Books about Hillbilly Elegy and as the two of us argued about what diseases shuttered Ohio steel mills, addicted mothers to opioids, split our country into armed camps and left white working-class voters supporting Trump a lady in the back of the room stood up and asked, When did you two become friends?

I met Gary back in 1984 when he, Phil Carlton, Tom Ellis and I sat down around a conference table in a law firm to negotiate the Helms-Hunt debates. You could have cut the chill in that room with a knife. There was no trust at all in that room.

At the second (or, maybe, third) meeting an odd fact landed on the table: The two sides wanted exactly the same kind of a debate – a debate where Jesse Helms and Jim Hunt asked each other questions. But that wasn’t what the Broadcaster’s Association wanted: They wanted their anchormen on stage in the limelight – alongside Helms and Hunt – and to do that they had to be the ones asking the questions.

The negotiations stalled then in the middle of the next meeting Mr. Ellis turned to the broadcasters and asked, Would you all mind leaving us alone for a few minutes?

They left, Mr. Ellis looked across the table at Phil Carlton and Gary and, about five minutes later, we’d worked out the debates. Oddly, as it turned out, the one person who would dislike the debate format even more than the broadcasters was Jesse. Jim Hunt won three of the four debates. But that’s another story.

I didn’t lay eyes on Gary again for eight years – until 1992 – when I was sitting in the conference room in another law firm waiting to negotiate a debate between Lauch Faircloth and Senator Terry Sanford. When Gary walked through the door, I looked up surprised: I knew he was helping Governor Hunt but didn’t know he was also helping Terry Sanford.

Gary glanced down the room at the Broadcasters Association’s attorney, then leaned across the table – toward me – held out his hand and said: “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.”

That one sentence bridged the divide.

Posted in: General
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It’s not at all surprising that Trump couldn’t bring himself to condemn Nazis, Ku Kluxers and racists bent on terrorism. As with Putin, he’s reluctant to criticize those who got him elected.

He was harsher on Jeff Sessions and Mitch McConnell.

Trump failed the moral test of leadership. Will the rest of the Republican Party?

A few national Republicans spoke up. But what about in North Carolina? Did Senators Burr and Tillis stand up? Chairman Robin Hayes? How about Dallas Woodhouse, who denounced Democrats for “murdering blacks” over a century ago?

And none of this namby-pamby pabulum about “both sides” or “all sides.” There’s only one side here. You either condemn racist terrorists or you don’t.

State Sen. Mike Woodard challenged Republicans in a weekend tweet: “Given today’s actions in #Charlottesville, HB330 that allows NCians to drive through protesters without being sued should die in committee.”

What say you, Party of Lincoln?

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Two days ago, I blogged about Trump’s lifeblood: picking fights and starting feuds. It’s like Burr and Hamilton with tweets instead of pistols.

Then he started two more feuds. The first is with Kim Jung Un, the only world leader as egotistical and unpredictable as Trump. The second is with Mitch McConnell.

The McConnell feud is good for America. It will keep the Republicans from doing much of anything.

But Trump’s feud with Kim could set the world on fire.

In days of yore, we had cool heads in the White House – Ike and JFK, even Reagan and Nixon.

This time, the head of state is a hothead.

Posted in: General
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Democrats love policy. We dream of being policy advisers and writing policy papers. We just know that those working-class whites who voted for Trump would love us if they got a load of our worker-retraining policy.

That’s the impulse behind the “Better Deal” policy agenda that Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi rolled out this summer. (“Better Deal,” get it? Like New Deal, Fair Deal, Square Deal, Art of the Deal, Let’s Make a Deal, Have We Got a Deal For You!)

Stop. Please. Just stop.

Stop thinking policy. Start thinking empathy. Empathy for people.

Empathy is defined as “the ability to share in another’s emotions, thoughts or feelings.”

Until Democrats give voters some empathy, voters aren’t going to give us votes. The 2016 election demonstrated pretty conclusively that a lot of voters across America – of all races, ages, regions, backgrounds and income level – don’t think Democrats get, care about, understand, relate to or empathize with them. Choose your own verb.

Too many voters think that Democrats think they’re better and smarter than voters. That Democrats look down on people. Consider them to be rednecks, racists and unreconstructed ignoramuses.

Granted, there’s an unhealthy dose of racism and know-nothingism abroad in the land today.

But the inability of Democrats to relate to a broad swath of Americans is real. And troubling.

Think of this as the difference between Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton. Both are policy wonks. But Bill Clinton always communicated caring, concern and compassion for people. Hillary seemed cold, disconnected and even condescending.

Voters thought Bill “got” them. So they gave him a chance. When they give you a chance, they don’t care so much about your policy proposals. They trust that if your heart is in the right place, and you’re smart, then you’ll figure out what to do.

Empathy was one of the great strengths of Governor Jim Hunt. Voters all across the state, from the country to small towns to big cities, believed he cared about them, understood them and really wanted to help them. So they gave him a lot of latitude on policy, and they gave him winning margins of 10 and 20 points in his races for Governor.

Hunt understand this concept at a gut level. He showed it during hurricanes and floods. He heard from people who were hurting, and he heard from bureaucrats who said they were doing everything they could. But he wasn’t satisfied until people who were hurting got help.

He believed his job was to represent people in their government. Not represent government to the people.

This is why it’s so wrong for Democrats to debate whether they should reach out to a broader spectrum of voters, or just focus on turning out loyal voters.

If you want to represent all North Carolina or all America, why wouldn’t you pay attention to, listen to and talk to all North Carolinians and all Americans?

Why make people think you don’t care enough about them to even ask for their votes?

Here’s a better deal for Democrats: Stop talking policy. Start listening to people.

Posted in: National Democrats
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We know what he does badly. He lies. He is willfully and woefully ignorant about the world. He lies. He is vain, volatile and thin-skinned. He lies. His leadership style is chaotic, unpredictable and incompetent. He lies. His chumminess with Putin is suspicious. He lies. He has no principles, character or sense of decency. And he lies.

But he is extraordinarily good at one thing. He is the greatest attack artist in politics today. Maybe of all time.

He has a feral instinct for the jugular. He has a bully’s instinct for a weak spot. He is willing to go way farther, swing more wildly and attack more viciously than anybody else.

He picks a fight with one person or with a group – the media, the Senate, Muslims. He makes it personal. He makes it Him Vs. Them. He makes us choose sides. And, as Carter says, voters today often have to choose between two sides they don’t like.

Trump’s approval ratings may be down. But you don’t run against approval ratings. You run against opponents.

There have been good attackers in politics. Nixon was good. Jesse Helms was good. But they were pussycats to Trump’s tiger.

Case in point last weekend: “Interesting to watch Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal taking about hoax Russian collusion when he was a phony Vietnam con artist!”

He calls Senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas.” One by one in the campaign, he picked off “Low Energy Jeb,” “Little Mario,” Lyin’ Ted” and “Crooked Hillary.”

It worked. It got him to the White House. And it will keep him there unless somebody takes him down.

To be the champ, you have to beat the champ.

Beating Trump will take somebody with wit, style and steel. A JFK, an Obama, a (Bill) Clinton.

Who can do it? Who can take him mano a mano – or womano a mano?

Who can be the Joseph Welch to Trump’s Joe McCarthy: “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

Posted in: General
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Carter and I had a good time, a great crowd and a rousing discussion last night at Quail Ridge Books’ “Bridging the Divide” program. If I was Trump, I’d say there were about a thousand people there. And that the bookstore manager called and said it was the biggest crowd they’d ever had. More than for Jimmy Carter, John Grisham and David Sedaris combined.

We talked about Trump, J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy (our ostensible topic, but we wandered), economics versus culture, gerrymandering, Trump, income inequality and envy, education, taxes, Trump, Jim Hunt and Jesse Helms, race, third parties, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Trump and Russia, the Electoral College, 2016 election turnout, social media, the lack of civility and manners, and Trump. A lot of Trump.

Some highlights:

Stumped by Trump
One person asked the money question about the book: Why did poor hillbillies vote for a billionaire who inherited a fortune and went to Wharton?

Inspired by this recent article in The New Yorker, I asked for a show of hands: How many people had ever watched Trump in “The Apprentice” or “Celebrity Apprentice” TV shows? Maybe four hands went up. (This was an educated, well-read audience, more likely to watch PBS than reality TV.)

Therein lies the problem. Because this audience hadn’t seen the Trump many Americans saw on TV: successful entrepreneur, decisive executive and inspiring mentor. (I’m told. I never saw it. But I have people.)

The Death of Civility
One person asked why politics has become so mean – and what can be done about the tone.

I suggested that if Carter and I can get along, anybody can. Carter attributed the ugly climate to a basic lack of manners today. (Ironically, somebody interrupted his answer to ask another question.) Both of us and several audience members blamed social media.

Economics Versus Culture
Rob Christensen of The N&O, who occasionally hosts the series, asked a good question. What causes the family and social dysfunction and deterioration portrayed in the book: economics or culture?

Carter said culture – or, more precisely, the decline of religion and churches. I said economics – the decline of manufacturing, mining and blue-collar jobs.

But therein lies a lesson about “Bridging the Divide.” Carter’s answer and mine sound directly opposite. But there is common ground there.

When I said economics, I was talking about what people lose when they don’t have a good job. Not just a steady income, but the pride of having a job, the identity that comes from having work and the values and virtues that grow out of the routine, respect and responsibility of a good job.

When Carter said church and culture, he was talking about the decline of those same values, virtues and structure in people, families and society.

So, you see, bridging the divide isn’t all that hard. You just have to talk it out, listen and respect each other.

All of which is foreign to Trump.

It was a fun event, a great group of people and an interesting discussion. Best of all, the store gave us gift cards. I used mine to buy a new copy of Look Homeward Angel. Forget Trump. Read Thomas Wolfe.

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Carter & Gary
Carter Wrenn
Gary Pearce
The Charlotte Observer says: “Carter Wrenn and Gary Pearce don’t see eye-to-eye on many issues. But they both love North Carolina and know its politics inside and out.”
Carter is a Republican. 
Gary is a Democrat.
They met in 1984, during the epic U.S. Senate battle between Jesse Helms and Jim Hunt. Carter worked for Helms and Gary, for Hunt.
Years later, they became friends. They even worked together on some nonpolitical clients.
They enjoy talking about politics. So they started this blog in 2005. 
They’re still talking. And they invite you to join the conversation.
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