Two-Party Animal

Why the Democrats’ resurgence is good for everyone—even the GOP.

In the closing days of the presidential campaign, I heard John McCain make an argument for his candidacy that I found appealing. Democrats were in control of the U.S. House of Representatives, he warned, and were within reach of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. If Barack Obama won the White House as well, Republicans would have no way of applying the brakes to Democratic excesses. The system of checks and balances would be upended. That this argument ultimately proved futile in stopping the Obama juggernaut does not detract from its soundness. I know, because I live in Texas, where Senator McCain’s admonition is just as true. Simply scratch out “Democrat” and insert “Republican,” and you have described our world exactly.

Or at least you would have on November 3. The world now looks a bit different. Karl Rove famously entered the Bush White House with a vision of a permanent Republican majority, but following an Obama landslide, major pickups for Democrats in Congress, and a handful of key Democratic victories in Texas, the political edifice he sought to build now lies in ruins. We should all celebrate its collapse, regardless of which party we may vote for. Political parties that have no effective opposition inevitably begin to overreach. American democracy works best when both parties are strong and capable of holding each other accountable.

That has not been the case in Texas for a long time. We have 27 elected statewide officials: the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller, land commissioner, agriculture commissioner, three railroad commissioners, nine members of the Supreme Court, and nine members of the Court of Criminal Appeals. All 27 belong to the Republican party, which has dominated state government since 1998.

The Democrats had their time. For a hundred years after the end of the Civil War, Texas was a one-party Democratic state. Industrialization in the forties brought modern economic issues such as worker safety and the role of unions to the forefront, and by the fifties the Democratic party had split into hostile liberal and conservative wings. Corporate relocations in the sixties and seventies brought an influx of professional-class Republicans into Houston and Dallas, hastening the demise of one-party politics. By 1978 Texas had elected a Republican governor, but the Legislature and most statewide officeholders were Democratic. Twenty years later the Republicans had consolidated their power, and whenever the party stumbled, Rove would remind fellow partisans that the Republicans’ rise was “not an event but a process.” With Bush’s reelection campaign of 1998, the state Democratic party almost ceased to exist. It no longer had any hope of winning a statewide race. Since 1994 it has not carried a single one. For fifteen years, Democrats have had to sit on the sidelines, waiting for a realignment that would bring them back into the game.

November 4 was a clear signal that the wait was almost over. This was a “seam” election, one that stitches the future to the present. It was much more about the Texas that will be than the Texas that is. The George W. Bush era is now done. It ended with a rout of his party in his soon-to-be hometown of Dallas; in the race for president, Dallas County voted 57.49 percent for Obama, 41.91 percent for McCain. The margin of victory is familiar, but the prevailing party is not.

Obama carried only 28 of the state’s 254 counties. Twenty-two of these were predominantly Latino counties south of Interstate 10 and in far west Texas. But there are a heck of a lot of votes in the other six counties: Jefferson (in far east Texas), El Paso, Dallas, Harris, Bexar, and Travis. The Republicans are strongest where Texas isn’t growing. The Democrats are strongest where it is growing. Politically, Texas is beginning to resemble James Carville’s famous description of Pennsylvania as “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between.” Think of Dallas as Philadelphia and Houston as Pittsburgh and you’ve got a handle on Texas politics.

Yet realignment is not yet at hand. Texas is still a long way from having a true two-party system. Before Democrats can be taken seriously as an opposition party capable of attaining parity with Republicans, they have to demonstrate that they can win a major statewide race. They did not achieve that goal this year, and they have a long way to go. Senator John Cornyn, whose blandness would defy satirization should Saturday Night Live ever be forced to turn its attention to him, defeated his Democratic challenger Rick Noriega by almost a million votes. Noriega couldn’t raise money or consolidate Hispanic support.

The D’s put some belated effort into three races against Republican incumbents on the Texas Supreme Court, but the challengers all lost by margins of five to nine points. Consequently, the party has no public face to give it credibility. It has no farm team and no bench. With elections for statewide offices coming up in 2010, party insiders can’t agree on whether to compete in the expensive races at the top of the ticket (governor, lieutenant governor, U.S. senator) or continue to build from the bottom up, in state House and Senate races.

But you won’t find any long faces among the Democrats. For one thing, America will soon have a president not named Bush. For another, the future would seem to favor them. In 2006, Democrats won control of the Dallas County courthouse. In 2008, they made major inroads in the Harris County courthouse. Just six years ago, Republicans had 88 seats in the Texas House of Representatives, Democrats 62. Today the partisan split rests at 76 R’s, 74 D’s, with two races still too close to call at press time. Most of all, Democrats know that demographics is destiny. The cities are growing, and minority families are spreading out into the suburbs. Nowhere is this more evident than in Fort Bend County, once Tom DeLay’s bailiwick. Fort Bend will be the first suburban county to go Democratic. It almost happened this year. The McCain-Palin ticket led Obama-Biden

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