How We Blew It

Remember all that talk about Texans changing the world?

April 2007By Comments

PICTURE THIS: American soldiers are welcomed to Iraq with garlands and return home within months. Democracy spreads through the Middle East with the viral ferocity of the Snakes on a Plane marketing campaign. A Congress led by a feisty Texas exterminator dedicates itself to zapping budget-busting earmarks and eradicating a culture of corruption rooted in decades of “Democrat party” control. A Texas political genius capable of microanalyzing the voting habits of Field & Stream readers finds the secret formula allowing ideologically pure Republicans to lead our republic in perpetuity. And for good measure, throw in this Texas told-you-so: The entire worldwide cabal of scientists finally confesses to the greatest scientific hoax since Darwin—global warming.

Just imagine it! With Western civilization staring into the abyss, assailed from without by martial Islamofascists and from within by marital homosexuals, a band of intrepid Texans saves the world and renews the American dream! Instead of State of Denial, Bob Woodward’s latest book is State of Destiny—and we all know he isn’t talking about Rhode Island! The whole world embarks on a vast pilgrimage to our sacred soil, hoping to pick up some of that Texas mojo that enabled one man’s gut instinct to outperform whole conclaves of so-called experts! When he leaves office, President George W. Bush will probably have to set up some kind of public policy institute affiliated with his Dallas library, just so we can answer the question everyone will be clamoring to ask: How the heck did all you Texans do such a heckuva job?

Of course, we can only imagine this—except the part about the think tank the president wants to bundle with his half-billion-dollar library at Southern Methodist University. The reality, alas, is brutal: Never in the annals of this nation has one state held so much power in its hands, with so much at stake, with so much potential to tip the balance of history on a fulcrum of those “Texas values” everyone was crowing about just a few years ago. And never has one state so hopelessly blown its date with destiny. History hooked us up with the homecoming queen, and we just barfed all over her prom dress.

How bad is it, really? Well, consider that the same Texans who were pretty much running the world after the 2004 “mandate” have now pinned their ambitions on long-term rehabilitation. The president is hoping to come back as Harry Truman II, with historians someday reversing the judgment of his dismally low approval ratings—even if he’s had to redefine victory in his defining battle, Iraq, as the same sort of bloody quagmire that led another Texas president to ruefully conclude he’d already lost Vietnam. Then there’s “Hot Keys Tom” DeLay, not long ago the most powerful man in Congress, now blogging away in hopes we’ll forget that he scored an almost inconceivable twofer, in one stroke bringing down his Republican majority and emasculating Texas in the new Democratic Congress. Math whiz Karl Rove? He just wants another election to refute the evidence that the only numbers he actually knows are 9/11. As for global warming, even the president’s Jurassic-era thinking on the matter (he was once advised by a prominent denier, novelist Michael Crichton) has evolved into a tepid acknowledgment of “climate change.”

So let’s get real, Texas. The world’s not going to come here asking, as Bob Woodward did back in the triumphant days of Bush at War, if our greatness is rooted in the very soil of our fair state. The world is just going to politely ignore us; the sucking sound you’re already hearing is our state’s political clout vanishing into some deep-space void. Instead, this would be the time to have a little Texas straight talk among ourselves. If we really had saved the world, we’d hardly be reluctant to broadcast our unique Texas virtues; maybe one of those virtues should be a similarly forthright admission of failure. Now that Texas has messed with everything from the long-term stability of the Middle East to the near-term prospects for polar bears, it’s time to ask: How the hell did we screw it up so abysmally? Is it something bred in the bone, some defective cultural gene, a warped Texas weltanschauung? Is it just possible that the roots of the present debacle really do run deep in the Texas soil?

Certainly the Bush administration has gone out of its way to characterize itself, from the top down, as uniquely—if not necessarily authentically—Texan. When he ran for Congress in 1978, Bush was portrayed by his opponent as a city slicker, a snotty scion with an East Coast—elite, Andover-Yale-Harvard résumé. But Bush bought his Crawford ranch on the eve of his run for the presidency, and it became an effective set piece for an administration that tried to make a virtue of its swagger (“In Texas we call it walking,” the president once said). The mainstream media bought into the president’s phony cowboy act, citing Crawford as the psychological incubator of a Decider who drew as quickly as a gunfighter and held his ground like the defenders of the Alamo. The best Texas leaders, however, have historically been cautious, calculating pragmatists, in a lineage that runs from Sam Houston, who tried to make peace with Indians and Mexicans and keep Texas out of the Civil War, to former Secretary of State James Baker, whose Iraq Study Group unsuccessfully attempted to nudge the president toward a diplomatic solution to Iraq’s civil war. Bush himself campaigned in 2000 as a disciple of no-nonsense, no-nation-building realpolitik, and even after 9/11 he proceeded prudently—evidently too prudently—in Afghanistan. The extent to which Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld cowed an isolated, impressionable president into a disastrous Iraq adventure will certainly be the subject of lengthy debate among historians.

If Texans didn’t exactly bring a hair-trigger bellicosity to Washington, they did bring something altogether more dangerous and deeply rooted in the Texas experience: the spirit of ’76. That would be 1876, the year that a disgruntled confederacy of ex-Confederates wrote into law our current state constitution, a reactionary document profoundly disdainful of and inimical to government—not just the federal government, which had literally been the enemy during the Civil War, but the state level as well. With a figurehead governor and a state legislature that meets every two years, Texas’s government was designed to nearly disappear from the lives of the average citizen, and so it nearly did. But this minimalist approach was an epic failure; the typical Texan lived in grinding, Third World poverty that remained unrelieved until the thirties, when federal spending during the Depression and then World War II spurred our economic miracle. Modernization didn’t change our philosophy of government, however. If anything, the burgeoning taxpayer-assisted private sector gave the state government the luxury of continuing to wheel and deal in the background, with an ever-bigger bag of goodies to peddle to ever-more-powerful special interests. As secretive as the old Soviet politburo—the Legislature is just getting around to recording final votes on bills—Texas government has long been an insider’s game, a culture of lobbyists, wealthy business interests, and part-time lawmakers too often on the make or take, with the welfare of the public and consumers largely an afterthought. Adding to the propensity for insider dealing, it’s also been a one-party operation for all but a few of the past 130 years.

Tom DeLay attended this school for scandal for six years, from 1978 to 1984, and as the de facto leader of the Republican congressional majority, he brought the spirit of ’76 into the national arena. Little wonder that earmarks became the trademark of the DeLay Congress, those clandestine favors for special interests anonymously larded onto spending bills, often in the dead of night. DeLay’s ethically questionable efforts to build a permanent Republican majority stretching from K Street to the Capitol to Wall Street—with Main Street on the outside, unable to look in—were right out of the Texas single-party, special-interest-servicing playbook, and his too-clever-by-half partisanship cost him his job, cost Texas the clout of the senior congressional Democrats whom he redistricted out of their jobs, and cost his party its majority (congressional corruption topped even Iraq in the November exit polls).

DeLay’s downfall was as inevitable as a morality play, but the president’s buy-in to the spirit of ’76 was fraught with considerable irony. As governor of Texas, Bush represented a singular bipartisan interlude in our state’s history, his path to comity with an opposition party legislature guided by a wily Democratic ally, Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock. Inclusive, politically creative, and a product of our cities, Bush had seemed as emblematic as his predecessor, Ann Richards, of her “New Texas.” Yet after losing the popular vote in 2000, Bush and his electoral architect, Karl Rove, suddenly reverted to the Old Texas, pitching their “queers and fears” agenda to white male rural and suburban voters, a political narrow-casting that had worked for generations of paleo-conservative Texas Democrats—as well as their Republican successors.

The reluctance of Rove and Bush to move off their base, despite having done so successfully in Texas (Bush got a record percentage of Hispanic and independent votes in his 1998 reelection), crippled the administration from the outset; without the unifying tragedy of 9/11, history would already have turned thumbs down on a one-term, barely there Bush presidency. As it was, Bush’s 2.4 percent reelection victory over an inept Massachusetts liberal—a species generally thought to be politically extinct—hardly represented the windfall of political capital the president claimed. And although he paid lip service to his putative “compassionate conservative” philosophy—the notion that big government still has selective, compassionate uses—Bush buried his ambition to be “consequential” beneath the traditional Texas model of limited government. His baffling failure to insist on more than an absurdly vague, ad hoc plan for postwar Iraq has often been attributed to the outmoded top-down CEO style he learned at Harvard Business School. But the fact is that the president acquired almost all his hands-on leadership experience in a Texas governor’s office constitutionally designed to underperform even by 1876 standards.

Even more egregious than the Bush administration’s failure to do government well has been its failure to imagine what government can do well. In Texas the Legislature is supposed to “get out of the way” of established business interests—which really means doing all sorts of favors for them—not lead the way by encouraging innovative new enterprises; the 1876 constitution, in an effort to discourage industrialization, banned any public spending on economic development, a constraint that wasn’t rescinded until 1987. The president has recently acknowledged what has been obvious for years to many Americans, from working stiffs to the CEOs of some of our biggest businesses: the convergence of global warming, our energy addiction, our national security, and our long-term prosperity. But the Bush administration’s too little, too late nod to alternative energy still doesn’t embrace conservation or consider the demonstrated role the government can play in mobilizing its superior research and development resources to jump-start private sector innovation (case in point: the Defense Department’s Internet, which Al Gore really did have a role in legislating into a truly consequential engine of free enterprise). As governor of the New Texas, George Bush put us on the path to becoming the national leader in wind energy; as the president from Old Texas, he’s been muzzling scientists while our global competitors from China to Brazil have gotten a crucial head start on the energy conservation and alternative energy technologies that are going to be one of this century’s greatest growth sectors.

The Bush years are all but over in Washington; the president’s final shot at redemption isn’t his Iraq surge—even if it works, the new way forward will merely prolong a quagmire that can only end in a region-destabilizing Shiite victory. But Bush still has in his quiver the single issue that marks a significant continuity between his enlightened governorship and his benighted presidency. If Bush can work with congressional Democrats to seal a deal on comprehensive immigration reform, he’ll have a far-sighted, New Texan domestic legacy to at least partially offset the foreign policy mess he’s made.

Immigration reform would also send a powerful signal to the state this president left behind. The culminating irony of George Bush’s back-to-the-future, Old Texas presidency—and the irony most of today’s Texans should be most worried about—is that it has become the model now followed by our state’s new Republican majority. House speaker Tom Craddick is channeling Tom DeLay; many of his colleagues have had it with his bullying style and hard-right agenda but lacked the backbone to take him out in this year’s aborted coup. Rick Perry still can’t decide if he’s going to be governor of nineteenth-century Texas, carrying water for mature, entrenched businesses and dictating who gets into heaven, or the governor of a twenty-first-century nation-state, nurturing promising new technologies and taking an immigrant-friendly stance on who gets into Texas.

It’s too late to save the world from the spirit of ’76, but it’s not too late to save Texas. We simply have to make a choice between the forward-looking, center-seeking New Texas and our latest incarnation of the Old Texas (we could even write a new constitution, one that doesn’t have more than four hundred amendments). For those having difficulty deciding, it might be helpful to pose this Tony Snow—like metaphysical question: Whom do you like better, George Bush the governor or George Bush the president?

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