How to Earn a Bum Steer Award
As a feminist, someone who believes that men and women should be treated equally, I had no problem with the selection of Wendy Davis as Texas Monthly’s Bum Steer of the Year. As a journalist, I would have had qualms picking anyone else. The award recognizes the Texan who most spectacularly face-planted in public during the previous year. As our then-editor Jake Silverstein noted in 2012, it’s not necessarily a title we relish bestowing. For every Dick Cheney, who was recognized for shooting his friend in the face, there’s a Rick Perry, who shot himself in the foot. Feelings aside, though, and politics aside, Davis was abundantly qualified for this year’s title: to ignore her would have been to ignore how genuinely bad her gubernatorial campaign turned out to be. It would have suggested, on our part, the soft bigotry of low expectations.
Inevitably, some readers disagree with our choice of Bum Steer, and we encourage them to do so. Nonetheless, I’d like to take a moment to address a critique written by Andrea Grimes of RHRealityCheck. In a post published yesterday, she calls the cover an “act of pure, derisive mockery,” part of “a long bipartisan tradition of deeply misogynistic mainstream portrayals of women who work in politics.” As evidence, Grimes cites the cover itself, which depicts Davis grimacing after having stepped in a cow patty, wearing the pink sneakers that carried her through her famous filibuster in June 2013; this is worse than a caricature, she argues, and harsher than previous Bum Steers covers, such as the one featuring a “remarkably smooth-skinned” Perry. She also offers a variety of unsubstantiated theories about our motives, but let’s set those aside—a glance at Texas Monthly’s masthead would offset any concerns about deep-seated sexism among our ranks.
Some of Grimes’ points are debatable; as my colleague Andrea Valdez observes, the caricature of Perry makes him look kind of like a monkey. But what I wanted to highlight is Grimes’ argument that criticizing Davis is tantamount to “punching down” or picking on the underdog, because I’ve heard other partisans make similar arguments in the wake of this year’s general elections:
This year, Texas saw its most promising, most energizing Democratic candidate in years: a woman who gave thousands of Texans permission to finally talk about supporting abortion in public, who filibustered not only for reproductive rights but for education funding, who took a Harvard law degree while raising two daughters. And the most prominent periodical in the entire state, the magazine that purports to be a thought leader in the political conversation month after month, shoved her into a shit pile for it.
Is it any wonder Texas Democrats have trouble gaining ground in mainstream political conversations? When they are roundly mocked for making any attempt to try?
Grimes is right to say that Davis was the most promising Democratic candidate in years. She was promising as a state senator, having shown that she could win in a purple district and having earned favorable recognition for her work in the Legislature; in 2013, for example, Davis was named to Texas Monthly’s biennial Best List. Her filibuster, in 2013, left Democrats more energized than they had been in years, as we discussed at the time. It also made her famous and helped her raise a lot of money, which meant she had unusual momentum going into the campaign. No one thought it would be easy for a Democrat to win statewide in 2014. But Davis’s candidacy, at least for us, raised the question of whether the party could be considered competitive again.
In other words, Davis wasn’t named the Bum Steer because she lost. That would be ridiculous; there’s no dishonor in trying. Rather—and this is not remotely unclear, if you read the article—Davis was named Bum Steer because of how she lost. She lost badly: “In the end, she lost by more percentage points than Tony Sanchez did in 2002.” She lost fairly: “Infighting! Staff shake-ups! Tension with the press! Missteps over her own biography!” And she lost consequentially: “It’s not that the Democrats underperformed. It’s that the party that hasn’t won a statewide race since 1994 actually dug itself a deeper hole!”
I would put the case even more strongly than that. At the beginning of the campaign I thought that she had a chance to exceed expectations, like Ted Cruz in 2012. But Davis’s campaign wasn’t just ineffectual. It was deeply shallow. The most clear-cut example of that came in September, when Davis finally started talking about raising the minimum wage—a worthy issue, one that voters in five other states would approve in November, and one that Davis set aside a couple of days later in favor of promoting her memoir. In 2014, she even seemed to set aside the issue she had gone to bat for in 2013; on the anniversary of the filibuster she commemorated it as a fight against “insiders” rather than a stand for reproductive rights. Davis’s campaign was, also, unduly invidious. It was wrong of conservatives to deride her as “Abortion Barbie,” of course, as too many did—but it was also wrong of Davis’s actual campaign to insinuate that Greg Abbott is a rape apologist, which they did, repeatedly.
Ultimately, Davis’s campaign was far less serious than her supporters would have hoped when she declared. The results were dispositive: she underperformed Bill White, the 2010 nominee, by a considerable margin; Democratic turnout dropped; and despite unrelenting arguments about a supposed war on women, Abbott won 55 percent of the women’s vote. (And yes, as some Democrats noted, he lost among Hispanic and African-American voters, but the “war on women” is theoretically directed against all women, and it’s not a good day for Democrats when they’re taking comfort in the fact that a Republican won only 45 percent of the Hispanic vote overall.) Beyond all this, Davis also cast an undeserved shadow on downballot Democrats like Leticia Van de Putte and Mike Collier, who campaigned with purpose and passion, and who would surely be named to Texas Monthly’s Champion Steers list, if we had one.
Some Democrats might take a more generous view of Davis’s campaign itself. Others, no doubt, would rather celebrate Davis’s strengths than dwell on her missteps. It’s taking things a step further, though, to assert that such missteps never occurred; to posit that Davis’s yawing defeat was largely due to the voter ID law; to posit that Davis, as a matter of social justice, should effectively be graded on a curve; or to angrily insist that any criticism of Davis, from any source, reflects misogyny or elitism. Such claims ignore reality. Such assertions of endemic victimhood helped land Davis on the Bum Steers cover, and deservedly so.