The Hutchison campaign is doing a better job of having a daily presence—it couldn't have done a worse job—but it is still too reminiscent of a high school debate approach. By that I mean the campaign is trying to attack here and probe for a weakness there without developing the broad themes that a campaign must have. They picked up my post of yesterday about Perry playing politics with the Texas Rangers by sending them to the border but I don't see how that advances the ball. "Perry plays politics" is hardly news to anyone, and he plays it very effectively. If Perry is sending Rangers to the border and Hutchison is saying he's playing politics, Perry wins that exchange because (a) he took action and (b) it was action that Republican primary voters like. The point is, single-shot attacks are no substitute for a message.
Perry is such a caricature of himself that he is hard to attack. Things that would be serious gaffes for other politicians—the hints about secession, for instance—don't hurt him because the expectations for him are so low. After almost nine years in office, he still gets no respect, not from the public, not from the Legislature, and certainly not from the media, or what's left of us. But he has something more important: A constituency. Hutchison has popularity, and she has respect—or had it at the start of the race—but that doesn't automatically translate into a constituency.
Here's an example of how low expectations help Perry. The recent revelation that Perry tried to get the UT regents to select former senator John Montford as chancellor, because (among other reasons) Perry hoped Montford would crack down on the hiring of liberal professors, is one of the most dismaying and revealing bits of information about Perry that has come out. It is so small-ball. Politics first, last, and always. He's in Pappy O'Daniel territory. And you know what? It will hurt him with the cognoscenti, who make up about 2% of the primary vote; meanwhile, Perry's constituency eats it up. Liberal professors! Red meat! It must drive Hutchison nuts, because she really does care about higher ed.
What can Hutchison do about this state of affairs? A lot of bad numbers are floating around right now. SAT scores have been flat for the past four years. Texas now ranks 44th in per-pupil spending on education. In 2005-06, the latest year for which I could find numbers, Texas spent $7,818 per pupil, compared to the national average of $9,668. Six states rank lower, and they are not exactly giants: Mississippi, of course, Oklahoma, of course, Arizona, Tennessee, Idaho, and Utah. Presumably, some Republican primary voters care about public schools, particularly in the suburbs. It isn't hard to see that Texas is falling behind during the Perry years. The Perry comeback is that Texas's fiscal and economic circumstances are the best in the nation. If that is true, why can't we afford to fund our public schools at the national average?
Somewhere in the numbers are the glimmerings of a message. We can do better. A governor you can be proud of.
It's September 15, very late for a campaign to still be in search of a message. Clearly, she is behind. Why isn't Hutchison on television now? Why wait for Perry to land the first punch? Is the entire campaign on Valium?
The primary race is really two races. The first should be starting now and should run through Thanksgiving weekend. Then come the holidays, when nobody wants to hear about politics. Hostilities will resume after the New Year's weekend and the national championship bowl game, leaving about three weeks in January and two in February before early voting starts. Hutchison frittered away eight months—make that nine now—by staying below the radar screen. Look where it got her.
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