Two-Party Animal

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

December 2008By Comments

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 in the early turnout by only 212 votes, 76,811 to 76,599 and won the county overall by a mere 4,710. Demographic change is fertile soil that grows Democrats.

Oddly, the Republicans seem oblivious. Their leaders have made no effort to address the state’s shifting demographics. It’s weird: They seem to think that this is still 2002, that Texas hasn’t changed. You would think that when they lost the Dallas county courthouse that would have been a wake-up call. If that didn’t work, the prospect of a similar challenge in Harris County should have set off alarms. But they continue to snooze. Granted, the GOP remains very strong in East Texas and West Texas, beyond the two major north-south interstates. Out there the battle is over, and the Republicans have won. But the fight for urban and suburban Texas began in Dallas County in 2006, and the R’s were caught off guard. When Bush ran for president in 2000, the favorable/unfavorable view of the Republican party in urban and suburban Texas was 62 percent favorable, 27 percent unfavorable. By 2008, it had dropped to 47-42. This is a major leakage. Fortunately for Republicans, the Democrats have not yet been able to convert these “grumpy Republicans,” as GOP pollster Mike Baselice refers to them. But it won’t take much longer.

The numbers all signal one thing: a move toward balance in Texas politics. Nothing could be better. When the balance gets out of whack, the dominant party tends to allow its most extreme ideological fantasies to run rampant. Consider the example of the past six years of Republican supremacy. In the Capitol, there are always two agendas waiting to be addressed—a permanent agenda and a political agenda. The former addresses the longstanding public policy issues facing the state: the education and health of our children, adequate water supplies, reasonable insurance and utility rates, good roads, the maintenance of a thriving business climate. The political agenda is entirely focused on acquiring and maintaining power. Since achieving complete control, the Republicans have put much more emphasis on the political agenda than on the permanent agenda. Worse, when they have addressed the permanent agenda, it is often from a political perspective—toll roads, for example, or school vouchers or goodies for utility behemoths. They have brought an approach to the state’s problems that has been primarily ideological. What needs to come next is to refocus Texas politics and state government in a way that places a higher priority on public policy than on partisanship and ideology.

The only way to do this is through a resurgence of the Democratic party, which is why everyone should regard November 4 as a good day, even Republicans, counterintuitive as that sounds. The GOP has become ossified, inflexible, resistant to change, unable and unwilling to adapt to the new demographics. A healthy Democratic party can provide what Republicans need most, which is a check on their worst impulses (to name one, their hostility to immigration, which is essential to the state’s economy). I remember studying checks and balances in high school. It seemed boring at the time, but if you watch the Legislature for any length of time, you realize that the legislative process is checks and balances.

I believe that the Republicans are running out of time to govern Texas wisely. The borders of this state offer no immunity from national trends. Republicans lost a net of three seats in the Texas House of Representatives on Election Day, adding to the five they lost in 2006. They have paid scant attention to Latinos, the state’s fastest-growing demographic group. They have watched their own party grow older, even as younger voters turn to the Democrats. The issues championed by social conservatives are losing their appeal. The rank and file are about to go to war over whether the party is losing because it is too conservative or not conservative enough. A Democratic party that is capable of forcing the Republicans to take a long look at their predicament is the best thing that could happen to the Grand Old Party. And to Texas.

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