A Choice Without a Difference
The Republicans in the state are giving the Democrats a fight at the polls, but there the contentiousness of national politics ends
IN THE FEDERALIST Number Ten, James Madison’s famous rumination on the dangers of political factions, Madison consoled himself with the thought that the sheer size and variety of national politics would be sufficient to override the contentiousness of politics in the states. “The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States,” he wrote. Exactly the opposite is happening in Texas today. The ideological intensity in national politics is bringing to an end the biggest one-party state political system in the country, but within the state there’s an unusually high degree of consensus on local issues.
As recently as ten years ago the Texas legislature was a battleground where the political and cultural arguments of the sixties were still being settled. Now, when the state government feels called upon to do more with less money, Texas politics have changed remarkably. In 1983 the new Democratic governor of Texas, Mark White, appointed the computer magnate H. Ross Perot, a Republican with a reputation as an ultra-conservative, to study public education in the state. Perot recommended raising taxes to pay for higher teacher salaries, equalizing the finances of rich and poor school districts, and de-emphasizing football— an agenda that might have been considered liberal if it had come from another source. In a special session last year the Texas legislature passed Perot’s program substantially intact. Then, this year, the legislature cut state spending, raised university tuition and other state fees, created a new high-tech research program in the universities, and passed two new state social programs (to combat hunger and provide health care to the indigent) and some new environmental protections for the bays along the Gulf Coast.
There was not a lot of argument about these measures; both the arch-liberal magazine The Texas Observer and the arch-conservative newspaper The Dallas Morning News supported most of them. When Congress, its resources constrained by President Reagan’s tax cuts, seems unable either to make significant cutbacks or to enact new programs, Texas’s recent experience qualifies as political harmony.
Paradoxically, the last legislature was by far the most divided by party—that is, by far the most Republican—in Texas since Reconstruction. Out of 150 members of the house, fifty-four are Republican, up from thirty-seven last year and one in 1965. The 1984 elections were a triumph for Texas Republicans, not just because the national Republican ticket won big—that had happened before—but because legislative seats, county judgeships, and even a couple of rural county sheriff’s offices turned over too. Three incumbent Democratic congressmen lost to Republicans. Some Republicans who had been considered purely token opponents of popular Democrats running for statewide offices got better than 45 percent of the vote. Since the election the Republicans have been working vigorously to get Texas realigned. This year a Republican came very close to winning a congressional race in the almost genetically Democratic First District, in the northeast corner of Texas. Next year, for the first time in memory, the Republican gubernatorial primary will have several big-league contenders (in the past there would have been one or two semi-unknowns). Texas may well hold its first Republican runoff—and this so that somebody can have the chance to take on a Democratic incumbent who has decent ratings in the polls.
The main agent of consensus on how to run the state, besides an us-againstthe-world feeling that has always been strong in Texas, is the oil bust. The state comptroller says that for every dollar by which the price of a barrel of oil falls, the state government loses $100 million a year in revenue (including $40 million from the proceeds of a tax on oil as it comes out of the ground). It’s not just the state government but the whole economy that is losing its engine of plenty. As the feeling that there will never be another sustained oil boom spreads, Texas politics is passing out of its Gilded Age and into a Progressive Fra. Strong state government—an unpopular idea in the late seventies—seems appealing now as a way to manage a transition to a more orderly, less spectacular kind of prosperity.
THE PERSON MOST responsible for the current Hurry of Republican efforts to make Texas a two-party state is the state’s new Republican U.S. senator, Phil Gramm. In 1978 Gramm, an economics professor at Texas A&M University, was elected to Congress as a Democrat. Though in some years he ran up Americans for Democratic Action ratings of zero, the Democratic leadership in the House gave him a seat on the Budget Committee. There he became a mole, providing Republicans with valuable information about the House leadership’s plans, and in 1981 he was the Democratic sponsor of the Reagan Administration’s big round of budget cuts. When the next Congress convened, the leadership kicked Gramm off the Budget Committee. He switched to the Republican Party, resigned his seat in Congress, and won it back in a special election. In 1984 Gramm capitalized on Senator John Tower’s surprise decision not to run for re-election and won Tower’s seat by a wide margin.
Tower, also a former college professor, got to the Senate in 1961 in a fluke election and for seventeen years was Texas’s only statewide Republican officeholder. At home he aggressively took on only those Democrats who ran against him, and left the rest alone. In 1978 a rich Republican entrepreneur named William Clements won the governorship, but his success was seen as largely a product of his wealth (he spent $7 million of his own money to get elected) and of the reaction in Texas against President Jimmy Carter. Clements lost his re-election campaign in 1982 to Mark White. Gramm was different: he won big, he’s a proselytizer by nature, and he was convinced that he could bring home to Texas the national ideological strife in which he came of age as a politician.
Gramm’s most public coup so far has been persuading Kent Hance, his fellow Boll Weevil in 1981 (Hance co-sponsored the Reagan tax cut), to switch parties. Hance left Congress to run for the Senate in 1984, but he lost the Democratic primary by a hair to a liberal state senator, Lloyd Doggett. Becoming a Republican put him in a position to run against White for the governorship next year. (His most likely opponents in the Republican primary are a vengeful Clements, who not only doesn’t like White but also resents Gramm, for trying to take over the party, and Tom Loeffler, a respected young Republican congressman.)
Gramm has become active in state politics, too, on a level that would have seemed insufficiently lofty to Tower or, for that matter, to most U.S. senators. In May, just as the indigent-health-care bill was about to be passed after long and difficult negotiations, Gramm, in his words, “called select members of the legislature to see what kind of cost analysis had been done,” a breach of etiquette that moved the preternaturally impassive lieutenant governor, Bill Hobby, to criticize him publicly. Gramm was heavily involved in the First District campaign. He arranged for the Democratic incumbent to be appointed to a federal judgeship, and then he helped to find and campaigned ardently for the Republican candidate, a former Texas A&M quarterback. He frequently visits county-level Democratic officials to ask them to switch parties. “My objective is to be sure people know the door is open,” Gramm says sweetly, but others say that when they’ve heard him deliver that line, the kicker is, “There comes a time when the last chopper leaves ‘Nam.” When a Democratic officeholder’s district votes heavily Republican in other races, officials of the Republican Party of Texas call on him, armed with statistics, and suggest that it might be safer to run as a Republican.
Although Gramm’s stated enemy is liberalism, the big losers in a wave of party-switching would be the conservative Democrats, who see not only their party but a whole precious tradition slipping away from them. They discuss the problem more or less sub rosa. because what they believe would not sit well with voters: that a benign, closed-door, businessmen’s oligarchy is the best way to govern a state. That may not sound very noble, but to give the conservative Democrats their due, don’t we envy Japan for being run by just such a bigbusiness-big-government oligarchy?
IT’S DIFFICULT TO convey to non-Texans what Texans see in the conservative Democratic tradition that makes them misty-eyed. The tradition is nationalistic and bellicose to a degree that makes the rest of the country uncomfortable. It draws emotional force from the spirit of independence dating back to the Texas Republic, the hatred of federal power engendered by Reconstruction, the little-guy militance of populism, the fear of poverty left by the Depression, and the need to be a sharp trader learned during the New Deal, when Texas was put on its feet by big federal building programs. Its lineal descent can be traced at least as far back as the thirties, when the conservative but Democratic Houston businessman Jesse Jones was the head of Roosevelt’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation. A good date for the start of its palmiest days would be 1952, when Governor Allan Shivers, a Democrat, endorsed the Republican candidate for President. Shivers showed that the Texas Democratic Party could be decoupled at will from the national party and remain Democratic; there didn’t have to be two parties within the state. Shivers’s reason for breaking with the national party was telling: while the rest of the old Confederate states were rebelling over race, Texas was rebelling over money—specifically the federal government’s claims to ownership of offshore oil fields. The South could fight the lost cause. Texas’s cause would be business. (The best-known conservative Democratic governor of Mississippi, the archsegregationist Ross Barnett, ended his days as a bank teller; Shivers ended his as a bank owner. )
In the 1950s Lyndon B. Johnson was the Senate majority leader, Sam Rayburn was Speaker of the House, and Texas congressmen were well along in their steady rise to important committee chairmanships: Banking, Appropriations, Agriculture, Government Operations, Veterans’ Affairs. As the story is told today, these men had their differences but they were united by a commitment to deliver for Texas, to work quietly, to avoid posturing, and to keep the amateurs (in other words, the liberals) out of the deliberations. Military bases, big public-works projects, universities, and highways were lavished on the state, and the sacred oil-depletion allowance was protected. Inside the state a balanced budget was required by the constitution, and there was (and still is, with the finality of holy writ) no state income tax.
The Texas business establishment and the political establishment operated hand in hand, their intimacy entirely in keeping with the conservative Democratic view of government. To a conservative Democrat the idea that the purpose of a state government is to look out for the welfare of the citizens is crazy (conservative Democrats do vote for welfare programs, but often only on the grounds that the ruling elite has to deal with messy social problems in order to maintain control). The purpose of government is to help business. The term “priming the pump,” as used by conservative Democrats, does not mean putting more money into the pockets of ordinary people. It means giving the construction boys some big public-works projects.
People without connections in the Texas establishment have supported conservative Democratic rule because it expresses their own values. Texans in general, like Americans in general, seethe with populist resentments, but these they direct outside the state, and especially at New York. Even today the big shot in Texas elicits more admiration than his brethren elsewhere do. The classic Texas populist politicians, like Rayburn, had their quarrels with Wall Street financiers, not Texas tycoons. For years populist state laws—which kept out Yankee insurance companies and helped local oilmen but also protected the little man—created fortunes in Texas, and nobody minded. So rule by the few was okay as long as the few were Texans with chips on their shoulders. Conservative Democrats love to reminisce about one or another legislative victory of the fifties or sixties that was “bad for the nation but good for Texas.”
Texas is even now a first-generation urban state, and the people running things get legitimacy by creating the impression—sometimes correct, sometimes not—that they sprang from the same humble, small-town stock as everyone else. I asked one possible candidate for governor, a self-made man with a big business, how he’d reply if White accused him of being a corporate fat cat looking down on the world from his penthouse suite. He looked stunned and said, “White can’t say that about me! He went to Lamar High School!” (Lamar is a public school in Houston with a silk-stocking image.)
Higher education at low tuition is the favorite social program of conservative Texas Democrats, in part because it’s good for business (there are more business students than liberal-arts students at the University of Texas) but also because it’s crucial to the dream of a state that works like a Horatio Alger novel. Country boys and girls can come to the University of Texas for $544 a semester, join the right fraternity, get involved in student government, and become the business and political leaders of the future. (The two most admired conservative Democratic governors, Shivers and John Connally, were both UT studentbody presidents.) Conveniently, university construction projects were an essential element of the patronage system that held the state Democratic Party together in the sixties and seventies.
THE CONSERVATIVE Democratic style of governing is, or was, seigneurial. Connally, for example, expanded government in concert with business during the years of his governorship (1963 to 1969), cultivated a regal manner, and didn’t truck with the masses. An oftencited example of the advantages of oneparty rule is Connally’s decision in the 1960s to abolish the state law against selling liquor by the drink. He didn’t have to pander to outmoded prejudices that hurt business, and Texas’s image, because he knew that the holders of those prejudices couldn’t punish him by voting fora Republican. Jess Hay, a Dallas mortgage banker and the state’s leading conservative Democratic fundraiser, gave me this classic argument for the way things used to work: “The one-party system was productive of consistently good government. There were a few scandals but not many. It wasn’t a boss system. It was a broad-based coalition, doing what was perceived as right for Texas, and with less ideological posturing than today.”
Republicans, in the conservative Democratic view, are suspect because they are ideologues. They don’t know how to negotiate, don’t realize how good the right kind of big government can be, and don’t truly believe in putting farmers’ kids right up at the same starting line with the kids of city lawyers. (“The Republicans want to invade Nicaragua!” one conservative Democrat told me. “We say, ‘Get United Fruit back in there! Go in and cut a deal!’ ”) Liberals, whom the conservative Democrats fought bitterly in the fifties and sixties and have kept at bay more easily since then, are seen as nice but ineffectual and dangerously soft-headed. A good liberal is one who’s willing to horse-trade. These days conservative Democrats confide proudly that Ernest Cortez, a prominent minority-group activist, is secretly on their side on certain issues, such as making sure there will never be a state income tax, because he knows that in their bone-crushing way they’ll tend to the public good.
The real villains in the ConservativeDemocratic cosmology are “national Democrats,” who have by now completely assumed the position, once occupied by Wall Street, of official object of Texas xenophobia. Almost everything about the national Democrats offends the conservative Democrats in Texas: their rejection of the back-room style, their enshrinement of interest groups, their ties to labor rather than business— indeed, their whole benign, optimistic view of government and human nature. If conservative Democrats see New York as the evil foreign power, they see Massachusetts— land of Tip O’Neill, Ted Kennedy, and Harvard—as nut headquarters. Texas was founded not by religious Utopians but by people willing to become Mexican citizens and nominal Catholics in order to get farmland. The mythic side of its history is full of the idea of conquest. Nothing in the Thanksgiving story of Indians and white settlers peacefully breaking bread together speaks to Texans. They feel that for a government to deal with its citizens and with the outside world, toughness must be the rule.
When Connally switched parties, in 1973, it was because he didn’t think that he could get the nomination of the parry of the national Democrats. Some twelve years later Republicans like Gramm are suggesting that the same thing has happened within the borders of Texas— that a conservative Democrat can’t win the Democratic gubernatorial primary. In 1978 Dolph Briscoe, a conservative Democrat and the incumbent governor, lost his primary to a more liberal candidate, who then lost to Clements. In 1982 Mark White, a protégé of Briscoe’s, beat two more-liberal Democrats in his primary, but further down the ticket most of the conservative Democrats fell to liberals. To the Republicans, Doggett’s beating Hance—a folksy, rural, very conservative figure, and a minor national presence—in the 1984 Senate primary is conclusive proof that the state’s politics have changed. In the registration drives and redistricting that followed the 1964 Voting Rights Act, the Democraticprimary electorate shifted from about 15 percent to about 30 percent black and Hispanic. Meanwhile, millions of new voters coming into the state, many of them conservative, brought with them the alien idea that only general elections are important, so they sit out the Democratic primaries.
The tremendous popularity of Reagan in Texas, dating back to his big win in the Republican presidential primary in 1976, is scary to conservative Democrats, but they know that Reagan won’t be heading any more tickets. What scares conservative Democrats more is the possibility that they’ll be shut out by liberals in the primaries and miss the chance even to face the Republicans.
TODAY TWO IMPORTANT Texas politicians who conform to the Conservative-Democratic beau ideal remain: Lloyd Bentsen, a U.S. senator, and Hobby, the lieutenant governor. (The lieutenant governorship is a much bigger job in Texas than elsewhere, because it includes running the state senate.) White’s roots are in the tradition, but not his style. Whereas Bentsen and Hobby are impeccably quiet, White plays to the galleries. (In part this difference in style comes from a difference in background. Hobby and Bentsen were born into rich, powerful families; White wasn’t, and hasn’t had their resources to draw on, even if he did go to Lamar High School.) During his campaign he promised to name a housewife to the state Public Utility Commission, violating the Conservative-Democratic creed of ruthlessly keeping amateurs out of government. This year, trailed by reporters, he took a fact-finding trip to Honduras, which was seen as pure posturing. Unlike his predecessors, he tends to make almost all the many appointments to state boards which are within his power on a strictly partisan basis—with the exception of Perot and a few others, responsible business leaders who are Republicans are not allowed.
White is inept at the delicate touches of insider politics. He vetoes bills without personally calling the sponsor beforehand, and in one case failed to veto a bill even when its sponsor asked him to do so. He cagily refused to say publicly in advance of the passage of the indigent-health bill how he wanted the program to be funded—he didn’t want to do the legislature the favor of drawing the fire for a tax increase—and this left the legislators quietly seething at him. When he appointed the mayor of San Antonio, Henry Cisneros, to the Texas A&M Board of Regents, he first made the obligatory courtesy call to a San Antonio state senator—but not to the senator from the district where Cisneros lives. He doesn’t work the sheriff-anddistrict-attorney circuit, as Gramm does. Voters have never cared about these rituals, but they used to be life and death to politicians running the state out of back rooms. One of White’s aides told me recently, “When we passed the tax bill for education, we had to convince the public. We ran paid TV advertising. Back in the fifties, when Shivers decided something had to be done about mental health he called in twenty-five people to bis office, and when they left he had a tax bill.”
In reaction against similar differences of style, conservative Democrats in Houston are running a slate against Mayor Kathy Whitmire and her allies on the city council. Last year Houston overwhelmingly voted in a referendum against a gay-rights proposal, which infuriated the conservative Democrats— not because they’re passionate about gay rights (it’s an issue they regard as unimportant) but because they don’t believe in settling anything by referendum. Whitmire should have called in the players, gay and straight, and said, “Boys, let’s take care of this quietly.” That would have left gay rights in fine shape. Instead, she let the public passions become inflamed, and Houston was made to look like a red-neck town.
White is so obviously a master of electoral politics that he won’t draw Democratic opposition. And since Hance switched, the Democrats have circled their wagons, to White’s benefit. The Republicans think they can beat White by tying him to the national Democrats, even though there won’t be a presidential or Senate candidate on the ballot to make the connection obvious. If this ploy works, it will be the first time it has in Texas, and a watershed.
A WHITE VICTORY shouldn’t be interpreted as a sign of new life for the conservative Democrats, however. They know that demographic trends doom them in the long run. The state is inexorably becoming more suburban, more affluent, better educated, younger, less native-Texan, less blue-collar. One day even the agriculture commissioner and the justices of the state supreme court may be Republicans. Ah, say the conservative Democrats, and then people will begin to miss us. In this scenario, the Republicans, having introduced into state politics national issues that are irrelevant to running Texas, will have to introduce them into state government as well. The legislature will waste time and embarrass the state by debating silly, hot-air, mass-politics issues like abortion and creationism. If taxes need to be raised, as they probably will when the price of oil falls more, the Republicans won’t be able to raise them, because they’ll have campaigned as diehard tax-haters. Republican state legislators will have to treat every vote as a test of ideological purity. Pretty soon the highways will develop potholes and the universities will deteriorate. Other states will get the new dams and deepwater ports.
Conservative Democrats like to point out that as a congressman Gramm sometimes voted, for ideological reasons, against Texas—for instance, against funding for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, whose Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center is outside Houston. During his campaign big business nevertheless trusted him enough to make him the biggest recipient of political-action-committee funds in the country. And now that he’s a senator, Gramm appears to have changed. When the Navy decided, this past summer, that the new home port for the refurbished Second World War battleship Wisconsin would be Corpus Christi, Gramm announced it at a press conference. (As a matter of fact, so did Bentsen, just a few hours later. Ever since Gramm ran against Bentsen in 1976, calling him a liberal big spender, they haven’t been close.) A few days later Gramm told me, “I just announced the biggest government expenditure since Lyndon announced the Space Center in Houston. You can be ideological and still get the job done in Texas. With a Republican, you can have both.”
In state government, the Republicans say, it was the conservative Democrats who couldn’t stand up to their constituency groups when the oil money was rolling in—that’s why the government expanded and the revenue base didn’t. There are seven state-supported medical schools, which is at least one too many, a couple of sparsely attended branches of Texas A&M and the University of Texas that happen to be in the districts of influential state senators, and two state-supported universities in Houston a quarter mile apart. Who believes that the conservative Democrats will get rid of such boondoggles when the conservative Democrats created them?
In fact, as the Republicans describe their future reign in state government, it will be different only in style from the reign of the Democrats in the past: the Republicans, with their suburban base, will be less folksy. As a truly statewide party, with many campaigns to finance and voters to please, they would be fools to offer as their vision a state government whose main activities of road building and educating would be radically reduced.
So for the moment Texas has parties but not “factions” in Madison’s sense of the word. The state is in harmony on substantive issues in large part because of the residual good effects of the tenyear oil boom. It is still flush with new people and new institutions, and they make the squabbles that once mesmerized the legislature seem irrelevant. There hasn’t been time for a new generation of squabblers to become entrenched. As the economist Mancur Olson has pointed out, when societies become economically and politically ossified, well-established interest groups arc usually to blame, not ideology. Certainly in Washington the interest groups, not the Republican ideological tide, are keeping the U.S. Congress at a standstill on issues like trade, tax reform, and cutting the deficit. For Texas, then, the most important question is whether the state can somehow get through a long period of economic stasis without becoming paralyzed politically. If it can’t, its politics are going to get tangled up no matter which party is in charge.