Hughes and Loose

W.'s closest adviser takes leave of the White House. John Cornyn's spokesman takes leave of his senses. What it all means for the GOP.

June 2002By Comments

According to my son’s high school government textbook, five factors influence how people vote: personal background, loyalty to a political party, issues, image of the candidates, and—you’ll never guess. “Propaganda,” the book says, employing a term usually associated with totalitarian systems. It’s a sad day when textbook authors are more cynical than politicians. Yet, by whatever name you call it—practitioners prefer “message”; pundits like “spin”—there is no denying its importance. The ability to define what’s at stake is the essential art of modern politics. Look at the list in the textbook: Each of the other four influences on voters lies in some stage of dormancy until brought to life by messages.

In recent weeks two message masters have made the headlines. One was Karen Hughes, the longtime confidant and adviser of George W. Bush, who announced that she will leave her White House job as counselor to the president and return, for the time being, to Texas and private life. The second was David Beckwith, a veteran Republican operative who is currently working for Attorney General John Cornyn’s campaign for the U.S. Senate. In a reference to the Democratic slate, which is headed by an African American, former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, who is Cornyn’s opponent, and a Hispanic, gubernatorial nominee Tony Sanchez, a Laredo banker and oilman, Beckwith said, “This ‘dream ticket’ is cynical. It is based on a racial-quota system. In the end, it will not work because most people vote on issues and philosophy, not on race.” Cornyn, choosing a word forevermore tainted with irony by Claude Rains in Casablanca, pronounced himself “shocked” by Beckwith’s comment. Both incidents are highly revealing, in different ways, of the state of political communication today.

At 45, Hughes has been described as the most powerful woman (presidential spouses excepted) in the history of American politics, so it was inevitable that skepticism greeted her stated reason for leaving: family. She and her husband, Jerry, have a fifteen-year-old son, and all of them, she said, were “a little homesick” for Texas. Hughes’s concerns, however, are nothing new; they go back at least three years, to early 1999, before Bush was an announced candidate for president. She told me in an interview that year about how Bush had said to her, “If you have any doubts about this, we need to talk about it right now, because I’m not doing this unless you’re coming with me.” And she did have doubts—about getting involved in a national campaign, about how to maintain one’s personal life in the face of the seductions of power. “We talked about how all this fit in with my family and my faith,” she told me. “Washington’s values are not my values. Everyone you meet is always looking over your shoulder for somebody more important.” She said yes to Bush, as we know, but it was never an unconditional yes—and now it’s no. She will return to Texas, keep in touch with the president by phone and visits to Crawford, and return for the final weeks of the 2004 presidential campaign.

As genuine as the family reasons were, I wonder if there were also work-related reasons. In the Bush inner circle, Hughes has always been responsible for message, and senior adviser Karl Rove has always been responsible for politics. In Austin, where the media spotlight falls on the governor’s office sporadically, message was more important than politics. Hughes was able to craft a consistent message for Bush—a uniter, not a divider; someone who was above politics and partisanship—that defined him as governor and helped him win the presidency. Except for a time after September 11, however, the message has not transplanted to the White House. The intense scrutiny of the media, the insatiable hunger for headlines and conflict, and the magnification of small events into large ones keep the spotlight shining 24-7. There is nothing like it in the world. The opposition’s barrage of criticism is relentless. Polling is constant. In such an atmosphere, politics becomes more important than message; indeed, politics is message.

A case in point: drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Let’s say that a good case can be made that drilling can be carried out, at certain times of the year and with modern technology, with minimal risk to the environment. (No letters, please.) It’s still a hard sell. The national security argument—energy independence—is patently false; ANWR’s reserves are a drop in the barrel. The public doesn’t want the drilling to go forward, and the opposition includes a lot of suburban quality-of-life Republicans. Plus, the ANWR plan is awful as a message. The public hates Big Oil; why give the Democrats an excuse to remind everybody that Bush used to be an oilman or that he was buddies with Enron? So, what’s the upside of fighting to open ANWR? According to a member of the national press corps, whom I saw in Houston recently, it’s all about sending a signal to coal miners in Pennsylvania that Bush won’t let the environmentalists dictate America’s energy policy. Rove, the newsman said, is obsessed with carrying Pennsylvania, where Bush narrowly lost in 2000.

Another example is making the tax cut permanent. The budget deficit is expected to pass $100 billion, spending increases are approaching the Great Society levels of the sixties, the economy is uncertain, and the market is nervous. Why force this issue now? The only reason I can think of is to be able to blame Democrats for killing it, perhaps enabling Republicans to win back the Senate. The result is that the Bush message has become mixed: sometimes above politics, sometimes embracing questionable public policy for purely political ends. This is not Karen Hughes’ style.

So I think that Hughes saw message becoming of diminishing significance in the Bush White House. In part this is because circumstances made Bush a foreign policy president, and in foreign policy, consistency of message is not necessarily a virtue. Bush was at his best and most popular during the successful Afghanistan military campaign because the message was big-picture: unity, survival, justice. Today, after the failure to account for Osama bin Laden, the escape of key enemy leaders at Tora Bora, the rise of uncomfortable issues involving civil liberties, and most of all, the Israeli-Palestinian morass and all its nuances and perils, it is hard even to know what the right message is. I don’t believe, as some have suggested, that Hughes fought and lost a turf war with Rove. I do think that the imperatives of statecraft and politics overwhelmed the big picture. Maybe the inner voice that said to Hughes, “Your family needs you,” also said, “There’s not that much that you can do here right now.”

Just as Hughes’s departure from the White House indicates the changing role of message in Washington, so Beckwith’s characterization of the Democratic ticket as a “racial-quota system” highlights how message is changing in Texas. Like it or not, the 2002 election is fundamentally about race: Will Hispanic Texans vote in sufficient numbers to elect Democrats? Like it or not, the election after that probably will be too. Demographics is destiny.

What I find objectionable about Beckwith’s comment is not the word “racial” (because assembling voting blocs is the fundamental tactic of electoral politics) nor even the word “quota” (which is hard-edged hyperbole) but his characterization of the “dream ticket” as “cynical.” Balanced tickets—ethnically, geographically, ideologically—have been a staple of American politics for two centuries. Their purpose is to broaden the base of the party. Reaching out to new voters and drawing them into the political process ought to be the democratic ideal, whether the recruits are religious conservatives or ethnic minorities. Far from being cynical, it is what a free society is all about.

Indeed, before Tony Sanchez (and David Beckwith) came along, the party that was most committed to the balanced-ticket strategy in Texas was the GOP. As governor, George W. Bush filled a vacancy on the Texas Supreme Court with his Secretary of State, Alberto Gonzales, and a vacancy on the Railroad Commission with Michael Williams, an African American; he also made Tony Garza his Secretary of State and later backed him in a successful race for a seat on the Railroad Commission. Governor Rick Perry has had two seats to fill on the Supreme Court, to which he named Wallace Jefferson, an African American, and Xavier Rodriguez, who lost his Republican primary race earlier this year. “We need more Hispanic candidates,” says Perry’s pollster, Mike Baselice. “If we don’t have Hispanic candidates, we won’t see an increase in Hispanic voters.”

Beckwith’s statement about racial quotas scrambles the message. It highlights the Republicans’ dilemma as they enter this new phase of Texas politics. They probably can win this year with a strategy aimed at driving up the white vote—using code phrases like “a governor/senator for all Texans” and Beckwith’s “racial quotas.” But at what cost? Polarizing the election along racial lines will have long-lasting consequences. Former California governor Pete Wilson attacked benefits for immigrants and affirmative action, only to find that he had ruined his presidential ambitions and put his state on the road to becoming solidly Democratic. Oh, you say, Texas is more conservative than California. Don’t be so sure: The Golden State once gave America Proposition 13 and Ronald Reagan.

The Democrats haven’t done much better in the message department. Sanchez and former attorney general Dan Morales spent the Democratic primary arguing over what it meant to be Hispanic and what language they should debate in, hardly the way to broaden the party’s appeal. But message isn’t as critical for the Democrats; sooner or later—perhaps 2002, perhaps 2022—they will have numbers. The longer it takes the Republicans to understand this, the sooner that day will come. And that’s not propaganda; that’s the truth.

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