In January 2003 I wrote a column about the death of George Christian (“ By George”), the former press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson, who was the gentle godfather and wise man of Texas politics. His career, I said then, “seemed to symbolize the changes that are taking place at the Capitol”—in particular, the evolution of Texas from a one-party Democratic state to a one-party Republican state, in which the incoming House of Representatives would have a GOP majority for the first time since Reconstruction. Christian had hoped to live to see what would happen in the new era as a party that had been out of power for eons assumed full control of the machinery of government. As he had put it to me in an interview, “Watching the Republicans, now that they have their teeth on the tire, is going to be fun. I’ve got to … see if the tire rolls over them.”
Here we are, six years later, and the tire is rolling. Christian’s concern boiled down to a single question: Can the Republicans govern? The GOP era has not been without its achievements, but the list is short, the circumstances of the moment are dire, and the will to attack the state’s problems has been less than robust. Its distinguishing feature has been the tendency to put politics ahead of policy, starting with the Tom DeLay-inspired mid-census redistricting of 2003 and continuing through the anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment to voter ID. Even before lawmakers recited their oaths this year, Senate Republicans schemed to change the rules so that they could prevent the Democrats from blocking the voter ID bill. The elevation of this entirely symbolic and ultrapolitical issue blew up the Senate’s tradition of bipartisanship and set a precedent for allowing the majority to run roughshod over the minority in future years.
Electoral politics always lurk in the dark recesses of the legislative process, but seldom have they been as pervasive as they are this session. The looming showdown between Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison in the 2010 Republican primary and David Dewhurst’s yearning to succeed Hutchison in the Senate have produced a cornucopia of issues and events designed to pander to the Republican base: voter