Can Bill White successfully make the extremism of the State Board of Education an issue in the governor’s race? This is what White posted on his Web site about the vote by the board’s conservative majority earlier this month to strike Thomas Jefferson’s name from one area of the social studies standards:
Last week the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE), led by Rick Perry’s appointee, voted to remove Thomas Jefferson from social studies textbook standards. That’s right. Thomas Jefferson – Founding Father, author of the Declaration of Independence, and a world-renowned scholar who advocated democratic, limited government – was deleted from a list of historical figures who inspired political
Because Governor Rick Perry provided no leadership or voice for mainstream Texans against people who decided to substitute their political agenda for the judgment of professional historians.
In ordinary circumstances, this would be a tough sell. All of the members of the SBOE are elected. The governor’s role is limited to naming the chairman. But these are no ordinary circumstances. To describe the board majority as “conservative” is to credit them with a degree of political normalcy that they do not possess. When they direct textbook publishers to include a vindication of Joe McCarthy, when they call for students to learn about a Civil War president’s inaugural address, and that president isn’t Abraham Lincoln but Jefferson Davis, they have forfeited any respected to which their offices entitle them.
Has any member of the majority coalition actually read Davis’s inaugural address? I have. There isn’t a memorable or stirring sentence in it. No student should be subjected to his defensive, flat prose. The high point of Davis’s rhetoric is a paraphrase of that fellow Jefferson that the SBOE majority does not care for:
Our present position has been achieved in a manner unprecedented in the history of nations. It illustrates the American idea that government rests upon the consent of the governed, and that it is the right of the people to alter or abolish a government whenever it becomes destructive of the ends for which it was established.
White hasn’t done much right so far, but I think he is onto something here. I don’t believe that the usual attacks on Perry are going to get anywhere. Hutchison tried them all–cronyism, the Trans-Texas Corridor, underperforming schools, HPV, meddling with university boards of regents, insurance rates, utility rates, nothing stuck. This might stick. White is trying to build a case that Perry is an extremist. It isn’t too hard to build one. Perry built it himself. There was his comment at the Austin Tea Party last April 15 that he didn’t believe they were all “right-wing extremists, but if you are, I’m with you.” That’s a TV spot. And there his flirtation with secession, in response to a reporter’s question: “We’ve got a great union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that.” He has also invoked the Tenth Amendment, which hasn’t played a role in American politics since southern governors invoked it during the civil rights era, to hint at resisting federal mandates. This was great Republican primary politics, but it isn’t necessarily good politics for a general election, when Perry will need to attract moderate Republicans and independents.
Here’s the problem for Perry: The SBOE really is loony. He can’t disavow their decisions without upsetting the far right. I think he would be wise to quietly tell Gail Lowe, his appointee as SBOE chairman, to instruct the conservatives to cool it, to get Jefferson back in the standards, to throw Jefferson Davis and Joe McCarthy under the bus, and get the SBOE off the front pages and out of the national news.
The other tactic White can try is term limits. Yes, Hutchison tried it and got nowhere. Her problem was that she had no credibility on the issue. (Just one more reminder of how horrible her campaign was.) She had promised to serve only two terms as a U.S. senator, and had violated her promise, while Perry had never made a term limits promise. White should run a TV spot that says something like, “I pledge that on my first day as governor, I will ask the Legislature to pass a constitutional amendment, subject to a vote of the people, limiting myself and all future Texas governors to two terms.”