Who’s the Boss?

What was the hotly contested race for Speaker of the Texas House really about? An age-old struggle between two different visions of democracy.

February 2011By Comments

On November 2 a wave of straight-ticket Republican votes swept 22 Democrats out of the state House of Representatives, a victory of unprecedented dimensions. After 2 Democrats switched parties in the days following the election, the House stood at 101 Republicans and just 49 Democrats, not even a sufficient number to break a quorum. Republicans envisioned a historic opportunity to tackle a budget shortfall estimated at press time to be $25 billion. Here was the chance to institute fiscal restraint, to enact anti-immigrant laws, and to turn out the lights at inefficient state agencies. With the Democrats essentially powerless, the new Republican supermajority could do anything it wanted to do.

And what, do you suppose, Republicans wanted to do? They wanted to fight. Not against the hapless Democrats. Against other Republicans—in particular against Joe Straus, the incumbent Speaker of the House and (at this writing) the favorite to be elected to a second term. The protagonists in the battle to come are old and familiar adversaries. On one side are the grassroots activists, the folks who went to the polls and cast the votes that sealed the victory. On the other side are the politicians, the officeholders who are the beneficiaries of those votes. The divide is as ancient as democracy itself. But the fundamental issue remains unsettled: In a democracy, are the people the boss? Or are the public servants? As any freshman political science student knows, one argument reflects the tea party view that elected officials are mere delegates the voters have put in office to do their bidding. The view of the political establishment is that elected officials are trustees who have been empowered by the voters to exercise their best judgment. That is the great rift in American politics right now, and the establishment isn’t winning.

Political pros have every reason to be alarmed. The grassroots organizations—the tea parties, the right-to-life groups, the newsletter publishers who relentlessly stir up the base, and their counterparts on the left, such as MoveOn.org—have no respect for the collective wisdom of the pros, and certainly none for the trustee theory. A memorable confrontation took place in September on Fox News. Karl Rove was a guest on The Sean Hannity Show. Hannity was defending Christine O’Donnell, a woman who had once admitted to dabbling in witchcraft but who defeated longtime Delaware congressman Mike Castle for the Republican senatorial nomination. Rove was at the top of his game. “It does conservatives little good,” he said, “to support candidates who . . . while they may be conservative in their public statements, do not evince the characteristics of rectitude and truthfulness and sincerity and character the voters are looking for.” Hannity could only sputter. As most people who follow politics will recall, O’Donnell and another tea party favorite, Sharron Angle, of Nevada, cost Republicans two Senate seats they were once heavily favored to win.

Like him or not, Rove is a political pro who knows that amateurs who subscribe to the delegate theory can be dangerous. When a talented but untutored figure like Sarah Palin emerges out of nowhere to win the loyalties and affections of the masses, it is a mixed blessing. Politicians who lack the instinct to locate the fine line between mainstream positions and extreme viewpoints are going to make mistakes, and the next thing you know, they’re being lampooned on Saturday Night Live.

This is why Rove continues to question Palin’s suitability as a presidential candidate. He knows that the wrong nominee can sink a political party. When Barry Goldwater said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue,” in his defiant acceptance speech for the Republican nomination in 1964, he lost the election then and there. The moderate Democratic party of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson disappeared with the flawed candidacy of George McGovern in 1972, reappeared with the rise of Bill Clinton, and hasn’t been heard from since. As the votes were being counted on November 2, the question foremost in the minds of political professionals was whether the insurgent masses who had carried the day for the GOP were the best thing that could happen to the Republican party—or the worst.

The problem is that the delegate model works only when the politicians know what the people want and trust them to be right. But what if the people are wrong? Take the Bush bailout of the financial industry. The tea parties hated it, but they were wrong. It saved the financial system. The delegate theory assumes that the public is capable of making informed decisions and passing them on to their representatives. That is a flawed assumption. Politics is complex. It requires compromise. Even the pros can have a hard time figuring out what is going on. The public is often in the dark, like Jake Gittes, Jack Nicholson’s character in Chinatown, who is told by the rich, utterly amoral Noah Cross, “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t.”

I hold to the trustee model, which advances the idea that “representatives must transcend the short-term particular interests of their constituency and advocate for the long-term comprehensive interests of the nation.” As Edmund Burke, the great British student of politics—and acknowledged by many as the founder of conservatism—put it, “You choose a member, indeed; but when you have chosen him he is not a member of Bristol, but he is a member of Parliament.”

Still, there is much to admire about the tea parties. They mobilized; they organized; they brought new people into the political process. But the Republican party has absorbed—or has been invaded by—a movement that demands fealty to a single ideology. Many Republicans, Rush Limbaugh included, consider themselves conservatives first and Republicans second. If turning a big-tent party into a small-tent party is their objective, they are on the right track. Of course, Republicans have no monopoly when it comes to eating their young; the Democratic left has proved to be almost as cannibalistic, assailing Barack Obama for every compromise on health care, tax cuts, and the endless war on terror.

In Texas it quickly became evident that the conservative base of the party was on a collision course with the establishment. The insurgents’ chosen battleground was the race for Speaker of the House. It was a quixotic choice. On the morning after the election, Straus laid out a list of supporters sufficient to elect him to a second term. That wasn’t the only obstacle facing the conservative organizations. A Speaker’s race is the ultimate insiders’ game. The only people who can vote are the 150 members of the House.

So how could the conservatives hope to win? In a word, intimidation. On November 4, one day after Straus proclaimed victory, a letter went out to every House member, signed by the leaders of 45 grassroots organizations across Texas, each with its own e-mail list.

“[The election] was a clarion call for conservative leadership in the Texas House—leadership that has been absent the past two years,” the letter read. “This desire for conservative leadership must be reflected from the Office of the Speaker to every committee chairmanship. We urge you [to] take time to ask your constituents—the people who walked your precincts and made calls to their neighbors . . . what kind of person they want serving as the state’s third-ranking constitutional officer, and what kind of committee chairs they expect. It is their right to be involved and engaged in this important decision.”

This is the essence of the delegate theory, and it is pure hubris. What the conservative groups demanded was without precedent. Regardless of the numerical advantage of a particular party, the Texas House has been organized along bipartisan lines for at least the past forty years. Every Speaker going back to the seventies has had chairmen from the minority party. Now, in the flush of victory, conservative leaders were demanding not just a new Speaker but a new process for doing business: that the majority gets all the chairmanships, the minority none, just as it’s done in Congress.

You can imagine how LBJ would have reacted to a grassroots organization whose members insisted they had a right to be involved in choosing leaders for the House and the Senate. The visitors would have been subjected to a stern lecture on the Constitution and a few swift kicks in the rear. No politician worth his salt, Democrat or Republican, buys the argument that he is just a delegate.

But the onset of the digital age raises serious questions about the future of the trustee theory. It is too easy to mobilize thousands of followers with the touch of the “send” button. If the organizations couldn’t vote for Speaker, they could unleash their membership list to intimidate lawmakers into voting against Straus. The BlackBerrys hummed: Call your representative. Tell him you want a conservative Speaker. Warn him that we will see that any member who votes for Straus will be challenged in the 2012 Republican primary. The phone lines hummed too, with robocalls by the thousands, carrying the same message. During the Christmas holiday, grassroots conservatives called members, warning that they would not support them in the future if they voted for Straus. A new verb entered the legislative lexicon: “primary,” which means to recruit an opponent for members who do not toe the party line. As in, “We will primary you.”

This fight could not have arisen at a worse time. Texas is facing a legislative session that must grapple with a budget shortfall estimated to be about $25 billion. The very future of the state—funding for public schools and universities—is at risk. It is a grim picture. And all the energy has been directed not into solving the budget riddle but into an ideological battle filled with threats and hostility. It calls to mind another ancient concern about politics: the tyranny of the majority.

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