Monday, December 28, 2009

It's Just a Texas-Governor Thing

December 2, 2009

“Now I think you’re on to a better subject,” declared Gov. Rick Perry aboard a private plane as the topic turned to Texas. With relish, the longest-serving governor in the state’s history recounted its uninhabitable past. “I think it was Sheridan that said, ‘If I owned hell and Texas, I would rent out Texas and live in hell.’ I mean, this was a really hard place. You look at the men that founded it — the Bowies and the Travises, even Sam Houston, in my opinion possibly the greatest leader this country’s ever developed. . . . I don’t think Texas becomes an urbany, really highly cultured place until like the last decade.”

Nasty storm winds slapped the plane along its journey south to Laredo. Perry, a former Air Force pilot with the rugged veneer of a “Bonanza” cast member, sat unperturbed with a plastic bag full of popcorn in his lap and rhapsodized further about the revered Republic of Texas’s president. “Houston became a Christian late in life because of his wife,” he said. “He was running for the presidency in 1860, and she talked him out of it. She thought he would lose his mortal soul if he ran for the presidency. He was highly respected in the North — an anti-slave Southerner. There are those that think he would’ve won the presidency of the United States and we probably would not have had a civil war. Interesting.”

The governor was grinning broadly. “Then we wouldn’t have had Abe Lincoln,” I pointed out.

Perry contemplated this for barely a second before replying, “Maybe Sam Houston would’ve been better.”

He sat back and munched on his popcorn, clearly pleased to have said something that might provoke incredulity somewhere. In the past 12 months, Perry has endorsed “Choose Life” license plates as an option for Texans, hinted that his state might do well to secede from the Union, replaced commissioners who were about to review whether he allowed the execution of an innocent man and charged that President Barack Obama is “hellbent on taking America toward a socialist country.” And today, in his ostrich-skin cowboy boots with popcorn tumbling down his shirt while talking up Sam Houston and Christianity and oozing sufficient levels of testosterone to detonate a Geiger counter, Rick Perry was doing a fine impression of George W. Bush on steroids. But he was also revealing their acute differences. That crack about losing your soul by running for the presidency was one of Perry’s incessant stabs at all-corrupting Washington — the kind of thing a member of the Bush political dynasty would never say. More revealing, though, was his passing suggestion that Texas had acquired its sophistication only in the last decade, that is, during Perry’s tenure as governor (which began when the lieutenant governor ascended to complete Bush’s unexpired term in December 2000). This, of course, is not only an audacious claim but also an implicit swipe at his predecessor.

Perry’s opponent in the Republican gubernatorial primary on March 2, 2010, as he seeks a record third full term, isn’t Bush, obviously, but rather the state’s senior U.S. senator, Kay Bailey Hutchison. Nonetheless, as the ex-president spends his retirement giving speeches and scribbling his now-nearly-completed memoirs in Dallas, his ghost hovers over the Texas governor’s race in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. The George W. Bush who was governor was a consummate “uniter-not-a-divider,” and there remain many Texans who fondly recall that model and blame Perry — a big-business booster and social conservative whom Paul Burka, the respected Texas Monthly political commentator, recently described as being “more about politics and ideology than governing” — for its disappearance. The temperamental basis of Hutchison’s campaign is that, unlike her “arrogant” opponent, she will restore comity to governance and thereby make the ever-shrinking Republican Party more attractive to moderates.

By contrast, the Bush who was president has been seen as divisive, and not just by Democrats. Indeed, of late his harshest critics have come from hard-core conservatives who charge that Bush’s federal activism in education, his unbalanced budgets and (most egregiously) his sponsorship of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bailout paved the runaway path down which the free-spending Democrats now gallop. While campaigning on behalf of the presidential candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani in Iowa two years ago, Perry himself volunteered that Bush “has never, ever been a fiscal conservative.” Today, Bushworld veterans like Karl Rove, Karen Hughes and Margaret Spellings are Hutchison supporters. Most of them happen to be personally close to the senator. But another factor, acknowledges one adviser to the ex-president, is “vindictiveness due to the way he” — Perry — “behaved toward Bush.”

Perry’s chief strategist, Dave Carney, accounts for the dearth of support among Bush alumni differently. “They’re not conservatives,” he said. “They’re country-club Republicans.” When I asked if he really believed Rove was a “country-club Republican,” Carney replied: “Yeah, absolutely. It would be impossible to deny that there are Reagan Republicans and there are Bush Republicans.” To the Perryites, then, the future of the G.O.P. — in Texas and beyond, next March and thereafter — requires buying into Carney’s assertion that yesteryear’s “Reagan Republicans” and today’s “movement conservatives” are one and the same.

The Texas Republican gubernatorial primary is thus shaping up to be a public airing of that national party’s internal discontents. The issues and cultural references in the race are unmistakably Texan. But the contest’s central question — whether a highly popular general-election Republican (Hutchison) can defeat a less-popular Republican (Perry) who nonetheless knows how to excite conservative primary voters — goes to the heart of the party’s overall vitality. In an effort to reclaim Reagan’s scepter, both campaigns are aggressively ignoring the Gipper’s 11th Commandment to not speak ill of fellow Republicans. The mounting ugliness between “Slick Rick” and “Kay Bailout” seems destined to turn off independent voters because, as the veteran political handicapper Charlie Cook observes: “in a primary, shrillness matters. It’s a race to the fringe.”

Republicans gamely offer the upside, as Democrats did last year while Hillary Clinton was heaving the kitchen sink at Obama. Disagreement? Healthful! Extended brawl? Great for turnout! Until recently, the Republicans could play down the damage from infighting by assuming that whoever prevailed would most likely face a weak Democratic candidate, Tom Schieffer, in the general election. But two weeks ago, Schieffer bowed out of the race. The mayor of Houston, Bill White, who has a large war chest for a campaign for the Senate, then announced he would consider switching races to run for governor.

It’s bad enough that a sitting governor not beset by scandal is about to be embroiled in a costly (perhaps as much as $50 million) intraparty contest before a potentially tough general election. But in 2010, as the party writ large struggles to coalesce around a singular leader and message, the spectacle of two well-known Republicans savaging each other is a midterm gift to the Democratic National Committee. The pain is already being felt in Texas. Each candidate lays a claim to Texas royalty (Perry’s great-grandfather served in the Texas House in 1892, while Hutchison’s great-great-grandfather was among the 54 men who signed the Texas Declaration of Independence in 1836). Each is a Karl Rove protégé. Back in 1990, when each first ascended to statewide office (he as agriculture commissioner, she as treasurer), the two fresh-faced Republicans campaigned together and were seen as the party’s twin stars. Today they’re each other’s worst enemy.

“I’m in it to save our party,” Kay Bailey Hutchison told me one morning this past October, “because I was there from the beginning, when it wasn’t cool to be a Republican.”

“Are you saying you made it cool to be a Republican?” I ventured jokingly.

The senator’s campaign manager, Terry Sullivan, laughed, but she did not. Nor did she smile. “I’m saying he wasn’t there in the beginning,” she stated, referring to Perry’s having switched parties in 1989. “He’s a Republican of conven­ience. I’m a Republican of conviction.”

Compared with that of her backslapping opponent, Hutchison’s levity deficit is notable. When she was state treasurer in the early ’90s, her employees complained that she was abusive, and today Matt Mackowiak, who resigned last April as the senator’s press secretary, admits that she can be “somewhat needy and demanding.” Then again, the assorted cruelties perpetrated against their staff members by alpha-male Texas officeholders like Lyndon Johnson and former Lieut. Gov. Bob Bullock hardly detract from their legendary status. That Hutchison — who has written two books about pioneering American women — may come off as a tightly wound survivor in a male-dominated profession seems a relatively benign infraction, if one that the Perry camp hopes will metastasize over time. She is, as Sullivan puts it, “a driven lady”: University of Texas cheerleader and law-school graduate; TV reporter; bank vice president; state legislator and treasurer; and in 1993 the first Texas woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate. To this day, Hutchison remains one of the state’s most popular figures: in February, Public Policy Polling found that 76 percent of Texas Republican primary voters viewed her favorably. “Though she scores just as high as Perry on the conservative voting chart, Hutchison has softer edges,” says Bruce Buchanan­, a professor of government at the University of Texas. “Like Bush, she comes off as the kinder-gentler practitioner of bipartisanship.”

Exactly how different Texas would look under Hutchison is unclear. Though her refusal to repudiate Roe v. Wade has upset some conservatives, Hutchison, like Perry, gets high ratings from pro-life and pro-gun groups, and she has consistently talked tough on immigration issues. “I’m not sure why she’s running for governor,” says Joe Allbaugh, the former FEMA director and sole prominent Bush affiliate to be backing Perry, though he refers to Hutchison as a friend. “I mean, is she running for better education? Prison reform? Tort reform? The military? What is it? She’s yet to articulate or crystallize it, and it’s gotten late in the game.”

Playing into the allegation that Perry has rewarded his allies with appointments and lucrative contracts, the candidate tells supporters that it’s time “to take back Texas” from the “Austin insiders and lobbyists.” Similar rallying cries might have helped Sarah Palin win the Alaska governorship, but they don’t sound especially convincing coming from Hutchison, whose strengths are decidedly senatorial. At her best, she projects levelheadedness, caution and knowledge of the world outside Texas. Her love for her native state has been chiefly expressed through the insider’s game of appropriations. Dick Armey, the former House majority leader and a Hutchison supporter, told me that she once got in his face over refusing to protect a Texas military base from closing, telling Armey, “You’ve got to love Texas more than this!”

Parochial sentiments notwithstanding, Hutchison told me unequivocally that her contest with Perry has national implications for the Republican Party. “If we don’t see the losses in the House and Senate as meaning that we need to retool our party and our message and our governing strategy, then we’re going to keep losing,” she said that October morning as we flew from Dallas to Waco on a campaign-chartered plane. Nonetheless, as she spent that day attending four different events across the state to trumpet her endorsement by the Texas Farm Bureau, Hutchison’s calibrations seemed less about “retooling” and more about soothing the base of conservative voters. Determined not to resemble a buttoned-up Washingtonian, Hutchison instead went the “Oklahoma!” route, garbing herself in a denim blouse, flouncy skirt and monogrammed cowgirl boots to blend in with the studiously quaint backdrops of hay and tractors and quarter horses. At every stop, she vowed to defeat the “government takeover of our health care system.” She spoke expansively about low taxes and private property rights but did not bring up topics likely to appeal to swing voters like the environment or alternative energy sources. (Perry, whose base credentials are unassailable, discussed both during the day I spent with him.)

Hutchison does not possess Perry’s colorful bombast, but she is a poised campaigner who does not commit unforced errors. That said, it has been 19 years since she has faced serious opposition, and the evidence would suggest that Perry — “a guy that’s got dirt under his fingernails,” says Charlie Cook, “who’ll say or do anything it takes to win” — has gotten into her head. She mentioned to me that a trespasser had recently photographed her McLean, Va., residence (which she has since sold), and that she imagined the images would soon appear in a Perry campaign ad as proof of her Beltway rootedness. When her campaign announced that Dick Cheney would be endorsing the senator (hardly a move likely to endear Hutchison to independents), Perry’s spokesman, Mark Miner, wasted no time replying, “The Washington establishment likes to stick together.”

“Of course we’re not Washington!” Hutchison insisted to me. “I’ve spent the same amount of time at home” — in Dallas — “as I do in Washington. And unlike some senators, I go out in the communities. I’m a grass-roots person, and I’ve always been a grass-roots person!”

For some time, Hutchison has made no secret of her eagerness to return to Texas. In 2005, she made it clear that she wished to challenge Perry for the governorship. At Perry’s behest, several promi­nent Republicans persuaded her that to do so would be bad for the party. According to two individuals with knowledge of the conversations, Perry or a surrogate called several G.O.P. leaders, including Karl Rove at the White House, and suggested that 2010 would be “her turn.”

Politicians have been known to change their minds about such matters — to which Hutchison can herself attest, having run for a third senatorial term in 2006 after having promised to serve only two. And so Perry’s announcement in April 2008 that he would run yet again did not divert her from the race. That same month, she hosted a dinner for the Texas Federation of Republican Women on Capitol Hill. One woman present, Kathy Jones, says that she asked Hutchison, “Why would you even consider this, when we need you so badly in Washington?”

According to Jones, Kay Bailey Hutchison’s tart reply was, “Texas deserves the best.”

1961, a New Yorker writer named John Bainbridge, who had left his home in Bronxville, N.Y., for a nine-month stay in Texas, channeled Alexis de Tocqueville in “The Super-Americans.” Today a largely overlooked classic, the book argued that the Lone Star State was like America except more so: more optimistic, more preoccupied with bigness, more obsessed with self-invention. For those of us raised in the shadows of the Astrodome, Bainbridge’s references to newly enriched oilmen trading in their Cadillacs once the ashtrays require emptying are blush-inducing but hardly unfamiliar. And in any event, “The Super-Americans,” like Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” 126 years before it, ultimately acquits its subject, proclaiming Texas to be “the land of the second chance, the last outpost of individuality, the stage upon which the American Drama, in all its wild extremes, is being performed with eloquence and panache, as if for the first time.”

Today’s Super-America looks a bit different. Its Hispanic population is both the state’s fastest-growing and its most impoverished. Texas’ high-school graduation rate is among the nation’s lowest, and its percentage of residents who lack health insurance is the highest. And as The Austin American-Statesman recently reported, “More government money has been spent on the cause of sexual abstinence in Texas than any other state, but it still has the third-highest teen birth rate in the country and the highest percentage of teen mothers giving birth more than once.”

Still, the Texas proclivity for what Tocqueville termed America’s “irritable patriotism” continues to thrive. Though any election is invariably a referendum on the incumbent, criticizing Rick Perry’s performance in a way that can be construed as speaking negatively of Texas is no way for Hutchison to earn votes. Unsurprisingly, then, a favorite Perry campaign tactic has been to frame the senator’s harsh rhetoric as tantamount to “tearing down Texas” or “insulting to countless Republicans who have worked tirelessly to make our state the envy of the nation.”

Perry is himself a gifted boaster. This past September in Washington, he met with a dozen or so Beltway journalists at the offices of the American Gas Association so that — as he put it to us — “you can kind of hear straight from this horse’s mouth about what’s going on in the State of Texas.” The governor then lovingly unspooled his litany: “Texas is the No. 1 exporting state in the nation. We’re the state that is the destination when people move from one state to another, for the fourth year in a row. More Fortune 500 companies call Texas home than any other state. In 2008 we created more jobs than the other 49 states combined.” To some ears, Rick Perry is insinuating that Texas — long a right-to-work state with no state income tax and a limitless supply of semiskilled labor from neighboring Mexico — has become a business-friendly state only under his administration . . . which, even by Texas standards, would be a boast for the ages.

Like George W. Bush before him, Perry has declared that being governor of Texas is the best job there is. Never one to be confused with a workaholic — until recently, says a friend, Perry “traveled a long ways on some good looks” — the task of being a constitutionally weak chief executive who asserts his authority through appointments and speeches seems to suit him. Even so, Perry’s years as governor of a conservative state have not been accompanied by high approval ratings. His plan to build a network of toll roads met with loud resistance from landowners and was subsequently scuttled. Similarly, the State Legislature turned back the governor’s executive order in 2007 mandating that all teenage girls be vaccinated for a virus that can cause cervical cancer. In both cases, critics charged that the initiatives were designed to reward lobbyists who were tight with Perry. As of July, Perry’s statewide approval rating stood at 42 — and this was well after Perry had titillated the base in April by telling a reporter that Texas was “able to leave” the Union and that “if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, who knows what may come of that?”

Having blown the dog whistle that one time, Perry has been shrewd enough to leave it at that, for the most part. (When one of the Washington journalists asked him if Texas did in fact have the right to secede, the governor replied: “I will leave that to a constitutional lawyer to decide. You could take Laurence Tribe and Lino Graglia, and you would probably get different answers.” Later I called Graglia, a conservative scholar, who stated, “No, I don’t think there’s any basis to that claim.” The left-leaning Tribe concurred when I contacted him, adding, “Governor Perry will have to find some other foil for his outlandish view.”) His mantra since that Secession Moment has been the 10th Amendment of the United States Constitution. Ratified in 1791 as one of the Bill of Rights, it states succinctly that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

To Perry, the matter of states’ rights — for generations a tool used by previous Southern governors to institutionalize injustices against African-Americans — has gained new salience with the advent of trillion-dollar deficits and increasing federal intervention into the private sector. But when I asked him why he was not vocal during the Bush years of ballooning budgets and federal activism, he grinned sheepishly and replied, “A timid soul, is all I can say.” He added, with not much conviction: “I did talk about it. I may not have gotten quite the — I talked to people about it.”

“You talked to friends about it,” I suggested. “You talked to aides about it.”

“Look, although the Republicans spent too much money, they were pikers compared to this administration and this Congress,” the governor said, now feeling his oats again. “So I think trying to paint all these guys — Bush, the Republicans, and Pelosi, Reid and Obama in the same — that’s like trying to compare a third-grade artist with Michelangelo. . . . From my perspective, it was a more manageable problem. Starting in September of ’08, I started seeing an unmanageable problem.”

Perry was referring to the TARP bailout. “What would have been your remedy, then?” I asked.

He shrugged. “What was our remedy then is still the remedy,” he said. “Cut the spending, cut the taxes.”

Perry didn’t make clear how a little ad hoc belt-tightening on the part of Congress would have allayed a collapse of the financial markets. He seemed, instead, skeptical that such a collapse had been imminent. At his San Antonio event, I watched him mockingly recall “the cries that ‘the sky is falling, the sky is falling — you have to do something, and if you don’t do something, the markets are going to crash and the economic world as we know it is going to vaporize into thin air.’ ” Most economists might take issue with the governor’s sentiment. Then again, economists are unlikely to decide the outcome of the Texas primary. Hutchison’s position — that she voted for that first recovery bill but is now “very disappointed in TARP” and “if I’d known then what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have” voted for it — may be intellectually honest but also, as a sound bite, tortuously Kerry-esque.

“I guarantee you our message is much simpler and more believable — hers is a mess,” Dave Carney told me. Yet Perry has displayed a fighter pilot’s maneuverability during this election cycle. Though a vocal a critic of Obama’s financial recovery package, the Texas governor readily accepted all but a small fraction of the relief money offered to his state. (“It’s our money — we sent it up there,” Perry told me.) One October evening I listened to Perry the states’ rights champion tell the Justice Foundation, a Texas organization that promotes the rights of the unborn, that “as a pro-life Texan, I’d like to see our national laws reflect our shared priorities.” In discussing his earlier days as a Democrat, Perry told me that he returned home from the 1978 state Democratic convention and observed to his father: “Dad, those guys at the convention aren’t like you and me. They are very liberal.” Fully 10 years later, however, Perry served as state co-chairman for the Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore. He has been quick to dismiss Hutchison’s blue-ribbon conservative supporters — Cheney, Armey, Phil Gramm — as zombies of the Beltway, telling me: “I’m saying everybody that’s been out there is tarred. Everybody.” This, however, did not compel Perry to refuse the endorsement of the Mississippi governor, Haley Barbour, who spent a decade as one of Washington’s pre-eminent lobbyists.

Agile politician that he is, Perry possesses a nearly unerring sense of what he can get away with. On Sept. 30, he replaced three members of the Forensic Science Commission, a state board that was just about to revisit the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of killing his three children in an arson blaze but maintained his innocence all the way up to his state execution in 2004. The move had the effect of slowing the review process, but the governor told me two days later, “All I did was follow normal, routine replacement of people” whose terms had expired. Editorial boards across the state have shown extreme skepticism of his explanation. When I contacted John Bradley, the law-and-order Republican whom Perry named as the F.S.C.’s new commissioner (and someone I have known casually for more than three decades), I asked him if he had seen any evidence that Perry was concerned about appearances of a rigged commission. “No, I haven’t,” Bradley said.

Still and all, the governor has reason to be unworried: according to a Sam Houston State University poll taken in 2007, 74 percent of Texans (including Kay Bailey Hutchison) support the death penalty, and the face of Willingham is not likely to appear in any Hutchison campaign ads.

On his airplane, I asked Rick Perry if he was taking a few tough swings at Kay Bailey Hutchison in hopes of scaring her out of the race. Perry grinned and replied, “Those are your words, by the way.”

“Well, it’s my question,” I said.

Laughing, the governor said, “It is a question that holds some truth.”

But just as Texas pride would constrain Hutchison from being too critical of the state’s woes, so, too, would Texas chivalry dictate that Perry pull his punches. After all, in the state’s 1990 election, the Republican candidate and West Texas rancher Clayton Williams may have cost himself the governorship by refusing to shake Ann Richards’s hand and by vowing to “head her and hoof her and drag her through the dirt.”

Hutchison, for her part, acknowledges that her popularity is somewhat ephemeral. “When it comes to specifics, I haven’t had one thing that resonates with a whole focus group,” she told me, which opens her up to being defined by the Perry campaign. Thus far, however, the Hutchison campaign’s greatest injuries have been self-inflicted. After an impressive kickoff at the beginning of the year, her candidacy all but disappeared. Hutchison spent the past several months dithering over when to quit her Senate seat to campaign full time until finally deciding in November not to quit at all, by which time one poll had her 11 points behind Perry. She recently explained to me that “I’m going to be a player” in writing conservative amendments to the Democratic health care legislation — that “it would hurt me if people thought I was quitting when the most important issue of my entire Senate term comes out.” When I suggested that remaining as senator might lead voters to think that she’s hedging her bets, Hutchison replied: “Well, I hope not. I hope that what they will see is that I’m making the decision about what’s best for Texas, even at a huge disadvantage to my political success.”

But is Hutchison’s candidacy, and the angst it inflicts on the party, “best for Texas”? A similar question could be asked of Rick Perry: What unfinished business necessitated his going back on his promise and running for a third full term? The answer may have something to do with Perry’s ambitions, and with the fact that big-state governors tend to find their way onto a national stage. When I suggested to the governor that his anyone-who-crosses-the-Potomac-is-tainted rhetoric would result in derision should he ever run for a job in Washington, he assured me, “You won’t see me there.” But a prominent national Republican who knows Perry well asserts that Perry campaigned for Giuliani in hopes of becoming the latter’s vice-presidential choice. And a politically connected friend of Perry’s says: “My belief is that if he’s elected governor, he will immediately begin the campaign for president. Don’t get me wrong — he doesn’t expect to be president. But he will be an attractive candidate to be on the ticket with somebody because he’s the Texas governor and he’s got a great financial base and is a proven winner.”

A more vexing puzzle is whether either candidate offers a winning road map for the state’s Republican Party. Four years ago, Texas joined Hawaii, New Mexico and California as “majority-minority states,” with 50.2 percent of its 22.5 million residents belonging to minority groups. Today, 30 percent of all Texans speak Spanish at home. Though Perry has appointed a Latina to the Texas Supreme Court and Hutchison expressed to me her concern that “we have not done enough to bring Hispanics in who have the same basic values that Republicans do,” neither candidate spoke directly about Hispanic issues when I followed each of them. When I observed to one of Bush’s top advisers that the candidates seemed to be ignoring the state’s changing demographics while instead targeting the G.O.P. base, the response was one of palpable disgust: “Amazing, isn’t it? And the Hispanic vote is gettable — that’s the frustrating thing about it. Perry will probably benefit by that strategy in the short term. But I think the long-term consequences are stark.”

Dick Armey is among the handful of Texas Republicans who see little harm in next March’s contest. “When I first came to Texas in 1967,” he told me, “the only race you had was primaries between Democrats. They managed to cope with it emotionally.” Still, the question that awaits an answer is not whether the Texas G.O.P. will emerge from next March’s alley fight with a smile on its face, but whether it will be any wiser for the experience.

1 comment:

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