Less Than Hero

The budget crisis is severe, but with challenges multiplying all around, Texas faces an even more serious shortfall: a deficit of leadership.

Perhaps you were among the thousands of Texans who answered their phones on the evening of the Ides of March and were surprised to hear the voice of the governor of Texas. “Good evening,” the voice began. “I’m sorry I missed you. Texans elected a Republican supermajority to cut wasteful government spending, not to raise taxes or grow government.

But right now, some are pressuring lawmakers to do just that.

Your voice is needed in Austin. But your voice can only be heard if you are engaged. Please make sure your legislator knows where you stand.”

Robocalls like this one are standard political tactics. But Perry’s script represented a significant departure from the norm. It was designed not to support members of his own party but to undercut them, to portray them as wavering under pressure. (Perry finished by directing people to the website of Empower Texans, where they found another attack on Republicans: a post taking to task the House Appropriations Committee, with its 18–9 Republican majority, for “stopping at $800 million in cuts.”) Though Perry didn’t say so directly, the clear implication was that Republican lawmakers were contemplating raising taxes and growing government. In fact, the opposite was true. Even as Perry’s voice was echoing across the state, GOP budget writers in the House were putting the finishing touches on a bill that proposed far less spending than contemplated in a similar bill in the Senate. So why did the governor feel it was necessary to record this message to voters?

The answer is, this is what passes for leadership in Texas today. Most Texans by now are well aware of the budget deficit the state faces. But another deficit threatens to do just as much harm: a leadership deficit. In the face of monumental challenges (a national recession, exploding population growth, faltering schools, border security concerns), our state leadership has been largely indifferent, starting with the governor, who excels at consolidating and maintaining power but not at using it to move Texas forward. Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, House Speaker Joe Straus, and Comptroller Susan Combs have not been much better. Political leadership involves taking risks, but none of these politicians are willing to stick their neck out.

Texas has produced its share of leaders over the years—from Sam Houston to George W. Bush—and nearly all of them possessed two characteristics: the courage to speak unpopular truths and a willingness to compromise. On the first point, few have matched Houston. When all of Texas was aflame with secessionist passion in 1861, Houston, as governor, refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Confederacy, thereby ending his political career. Houston’s greatness was that he told the people what he knew to be the truth, even when they didn’t want to hear it. “Let me tell you what is coming,” he said to a hostile audience in Galveston after Texas had seceded. “You may, after the sacrifice of countless millions of treasures and hundreds of thousands of precious lives, as a bare possibility, win Southern independence, if God be not against you. But I doubt it. The North is determined to preserve this Union.”

Compromise is too often regarded as a sign of weakness in our ideological age, but Lyndon Johnson was acknowledged as a master of the art and Bush practiced it successfully as governor. In his first term, Bush faced a pivotal decision in a battle over tort reform that forced him to decide whether to govern by force or by negotiation. When he decided on the latter, he cut a deal with Bob Bullock, the Democratic lieutenant governor, and the rest of his years as governor were smooth sailing.

Perry is a different kind of politician. He would never dream of taking the sort of risk Houston did, and he compromises only when forced to. He appeals to people’s fears, having more or less given up on their better natures. Look at the robocall. The most remarkable word in this message is “wasteful,” which is how he chooses to characterize government spending. This is just plain bizarre. Texas ranks dead last nationally in state spending per capita, is close to the bottom in spending per public school student, has the highest percentage of uninsured citizens, and so on. In 2007, the latest year for which figures are available, Texas was the only state in which per capita spending averaged below $4,000. All of this is taking place in a state whose population grew by 20 percent in the past decade—that’s 20 percent more people who will be using our aging highways, our overcrowded hospital emergency rooms, and our schools, whose revenue has been frozen since 2006. Wasteful?

But voters don’t know this. The dynamic of our current politics is this: Perry stirs up the GOP base; the base responds by calling their representatives; the representatives, fearful of the voters’ wrath, cave in. One of the basic issues of democratic government is how to ensure that the voters can make informed decisions with good information. During Perry’s year-long race for reelection, which included a primary race against Kay Bailey Hutchison and a general election campaign against Bill White, he hid the ball on the state’s budget situation, repeatedly insisting that the current budget crisis was just another fiscal hiccup, something like the $10 billion shortfall that the Legislature overcame in 2003. Voters who heard this message last year are now likely to conclude that cuts to schools, hospitals, and nursing homes won’t really do much damage, that the fear of fiscal Armageddon is exaggerated, and that spending from the Rainy Day Fund would be profligate.

But a report by the Legislative Budget Board—loudly condemned by the state’s leadership because it told the ugly truth—estimated that the House’s version of the budget, if it became law, would result in more than 600,000 jobs lost, a $34.2 billion decrease in gross state product, and a $29.8 billion decline in personal income, among other bad news. Considerable effort has been made to, as the saying goes,

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