End of The Road

After twenty years of political dominance by a certain father-and-son team, Texas is finally ready to move on.
Illustration by Ian Keltie

Texans, if you’ll look in your rearview mirrors, that’s Bush Country rapidly receding behind us. We’ve dwelled there securely, at times smugly, for the past twenty years, during all but two of which someone named Bush has either led the nation or governed the nation’s second-largest state. But now we’re moving on.

We could date our time in Bush Country between two presidential inaugurations, one in 1989 and the other coming up in January. But to be more precise, we moved into Bush Country on March 8, 1988, when a then record number of us turned out to vote in a primary and decided to let favorite son George H.W. Bush (still suspect in some quarters as a Yankee transplant) lead us into the post-Reagan era. And we gave notice that we were moving on just this March 4, when we set a stunning new record for primary participation and turned our backs on so many of the things Bush Country has come to represent.

Of course, the fact that a record turnout of Democrats bested a record turnout of Republicans by more than two to one on March 4 doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re headed to Obamaland or Hillary Haven. And the possibility that John McCain will keep our state’s electoral votes in the Republican column this fall, where they’ve ended up every four years since 1980, doesn’t mean we’re going to hunker down in McCain Country either. What March 4 really told us is that Texas is the new frontier in American politics, a no-man’s-land (or woman’s) there for the taking by the political party or would-be dynasty—or even the third party—clever enough to claim it. And whoever can put his brand on what was formerly Bush Country will have the opportunity, just as the Bushes did, to reshape the entire world.

Not that putting your name on Texas is all that easy. Lyndon Johnson did it (better yet, he monogrammed us) and also got to lead the free world for a while. Yet between LBJ and the Bushes was a two-decade interregnum in which Texas voters strongly trended Republican but neither party could put the other away. It took both the Bushes to pull off the remarkable feat of rebranding this contested turf as their dynastic homeland—and whoever hopes to claim future naming rights to our state should take some notes on how a patrician New England family turned Texas into Bush Country. It wasn’t just brilliant political bean counting, chicanery, or a masterstroke of political strategy. Texas is a storytelling culture, and the Bushes told a story about Texas that was so good they got to put their name on our state.

Much like an epic in an oral tradition, the Bush story was composed of threads of history, myth, and previous narratives, and it evolved over time, which is why it held its force during two of the most transforming decades in Texas history. But at its heart was a powerful, patriarchal, almost biblical tale. It may have lacked the sheer moral drama of Exodus—that was LBJ’s Texas narrative, bringing the state out of the bondage of grinding poverty and Jim Crow racism. The story the Bushes told was more like the Book of Deuteronomy, a political covenant intended to bind a fractious, prolifically multiplying people and prepare them for the promised land.

Like the Israelites of Deuteronomy, by 1988 a lot of Texans were wanderers, migrants from the Rust Belt and Texas’s own small towns who had flooded the booming suburbs that ring Houston and Dallas. They were creating an SUV-driving, megachurch-attending culture that would transform the nation’s politics, but they already saw their way of life threatened by almost overwhelming economic and social pressures. Texas had just started to recover from the catastrophic bust of the mid-eighties, and voters of both parties grappled with the challenge of building a more diversified Texas economy, better connected to the outside world and more resistant to the historic boom-or-bust cycle of the oil industry. Yet at the same time, many Texans wanted to insulate their new neighborhoods and schools from the scorching pace of social and demographic evolution in a state where the non-Hispanic white majority would shrink from nearly 66 percent in 1980 to 53 percent just two decades later.

Many of the new Texans didn’t know they were tradition-bound to vote Democratic, and they didn’t see the Bushes as Yankee “carpetbaggers” because they were transplants too. The new suburbanites represented a burgeoning managerial and entrepreneurial class, and so did the Bushes: The patriarch had made millions in the Permian Basin oil patch and had managed no less an enterprise than the CIA; the son had dabbled in oil and finally got traction running the Texas Rangers baseball franchise. Both Bushes had elite Eastern Seaboard educations, but that was what most suburban Texans wanted (and still prefer) for their kids. Both spoke the language of talk radio and the conservative think tanks on issues like guns and abortion, but both also adopted a kinder, gentler, more compassionate tone, reassuring suburban voters who wanted a reasoned road map into the future. Suburban Texans knew change was coming—they were, in fact, part of it—and they didn’t exactly want to stop it in its tracks. They merely wanted competent men, people like “us” or perhaps a bit better, to manage a gradual transformation. And that was the simple yet enduring covenant the Bushes made with Texas: You build your businesses and your neighborhoods, and we’ll manage the change.

The founding patriarch of Bush Country famously raised taxes to whittle down Ronald Reagan’s huge federal deficit, a prudent managerial move but a political disaster that cost him his presidency in 1992. However, the Bush covenant was kept when George W. Bush was elected governor two years later and proved to be a competent, at times even inspired, manager of changing Texas. He worked with Democrats to reform public education, courted the rapidly growing Hispanic vote, and started the nation’s most ambitious wind-energy program.

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