The Intimate GOP
IT WAS JUST TEN DAYS after the close of the Republican convention, and here I was at a much smaller gathering of Republicans at Fairview Farms in Plano, just north of Dallas. Proclaimed a “Boot Scootin’ Olde Tyme Political Hoe-Down,” this campaign kickoff was also, of course, a “family event” and, sure enough, families came. The younger kids were adorable with scrubbed faces and crisp little dresses or spotless shirts, and the eighth graders and high school freshmen were predictably remote and bored. There were horseshoes and hayrides for free and pony rides for a dollar. On a covered stage before about twenty picnic tables, the Dallas Tap Dazzlers dazzled. Then the Prairie Fire Cloggers clogged. And then the Texas Legacy Band, three expressionless gentlemen in jeans, boots, and white hats, sang on and on even though they were completely ignored. Was it their private revenge or simple obtuseness that had them sing, in this company, a song whose lyrics went: “Make love not war. / What are we fighting for? / No need to fuss and scrap. / Come on, baby, sit on my lap.” At the back of the stage a United States ßag and a Texas ßag ßanked a large photograph of George Bush, which on second glance turned out to be a younger George Bush. It was a relic from the 1980 campaign that someone had kept around for twelve years.
Waiting for the speeches that would be the climax of the afternoon, I wandered among booths behind the stage. The Republican faithful were selling polyester elephant ties for $20, elephant scarves, elephant buttons, elephant sweaters for $80, coffee mugs in the shape of elephants for $15 a pair, and, to my great relief and that of many others, excellent margaritas for $4. In a short-sleeved knit shirt and khaki pants, I was dressed interchangeably with the majority of the men there, and their families bore no sharp distinction from my own. I felt an uncomfortable but unavoidable self-recognition, not unlike the one I felt while watching the Republican National Convention. It had produced in me an orgy of personal evaluation. As the convention speakers droned away, I took stock. I have a family; I have a house with a mortgage; I am putting away money for the future because I want my kids to go to college and because I don’t want to have to eat dog food when I’m seventy. I want the money I’m putting aside to maintain its value; thus, I hope for social continuity and order. I believe in a market economy and think it solves many more problems than it creates. I also think that the cost of government burdens the economy needlessly. And I play golf.
This personal inventory made me sound to myself like a Republican. Yet I had felt alienated from what I saw at the convention. The hallucinations of Pat Robinson, the scolding of Marilyn Quayle, the bitterness of Pat Buchanan—what did any of that have to do with my personal hopes, beliefs, and worries? I considered myself quite ready to take the traditional Republican bait if only it were cast in my direction. But it never appeared. Worse, the tone of the convention was often so combative and self-righteous that the clear message became: If you’re not one of us, we don’t want you.
If the convention showed anything, it was the triumph of the social conservatives—whose interests are in issues of personal behavior, such as abortion, school prayer, and homosexuality—over the economic and philosophical conservatives—whose interests are in fiscal policy, the free market economy, and decreasing the size and power of government. Economic conservatives are the traditional core of the Republican party. Social conservatives, essentially the religious right, have worked with great determination and diligence to gain control over the party apparatus in much the same way that fundamentalists took over the Baptist church from the moderates. The reason for the social conservatives’ success was that they wanted to win more than their opponents did. A former Republican officeholder told me that with the Republicans in the White House for the past twelve years, economic conservatives had gotten lazy and let the party get taken from them. A prominent Republican consultant wondered, “Do people who are interested in economic success want that in a gut way as much as the religious right wants to win on their agenda? They are well focused and well disciplined, and I don’t see them back-ing off.”
The purpose of the convention was to secure what has become the national Republican base, which is why the message was directed at social conservatives rather than economic conservatives. But the message that afternoon in Plano was different. While its focus was necessarily local, the boot scootin’ political hoe-down was far less inßamed and far more levelheaded than what I had heard at the convention. When Fred Meyer, the chairman of the Republican party of Texas, began the speeches, he couldn’t resist indulging in some mild press bashing—“In this election we have to take on the Democrats and the media too. … But regardless of what you see on the network news, Republicans are going to win a great victory in November.” Otherwise, he enthusiastically described what he called the chance of a lifetime for Texas Republicans. They hope to become a majority on the Texas Supreme Court through victories by Craig Enoch over Oscar Mauzy (whose name prompted passionate booing—the strongest emotion of the afternoon) and by John Montgomery over Jack Hightower. They hope to become a majority in the state Senate by going from the current nine to sixteen senators. And they think that they could pick up some more congressional seats because of the anti-incumbency mood in the country.
Jim Oberwetter, the Texas chairman of the Bush-Quayle campaign, said simply that Texas will go for Bush because he is the one saying that government is too big and costs too much. Oberwetter insisted that “Bush will increase jobs while Clinton will decrease them.” Both Bush and Clinton want to decrease defense spending, he acknowledged, but he claimed that Clinton wants to decrease it too much too fast for our safety or for the good of the economy. And finally, he said, “When Clinton was busing across Texas with the governor, he never zeroed in on the Free Trade Agreement. The president had the vision to pursue that, and now that it’s here, Clinton is becoming very iffy about it.”
Each of Meyer’s points concerned practical goals for the party, and each of Oberwetter’s was economic and philosophical. Their points were not beyond debate, to say the least. For instance, if Bush believes that government is too big and costs too much, why is government so much bigger and so much more costly after his four years in office? Nevertheless, these strategic points and, more importantly, the economic and philosophical ones are exactly the kind of political debate I had hoped for from the speakers at the national convention, only to be disappointed.
In Plano, the speakers who followed Oberwetter returned to the same economic or philosophical themes. Barry Williamson, the Republican candidate for railroad commissioner against Lena Guerrero, said, “We are talking about creating jobs for Texas. We need to remove government red tape on drilling and deregulate trucking.” Each of the judicial candidates, whose speeches were mercifully short, made similar appeals. They all described themselves as against judicial activism because it interferes with the economic vitality of the state. One claimed that a decision by Jack Hightower caused 30,000 layoffs in Texas and that the foreign press was reporting that it might be prudent for businesses to move out of Texas because of its activist judges. As the candidates lower on the slate spoke, their comments were shorter and often bizarre. A hopeful for the Court of Appeals said that being on that court would be like being caught between a dog and a fire hydrant. He wouldn’t have the pleasure of the dog, but he wouldn’t suffer the indignity of the hydrant either. Another judicial hopeful told of the time George Bush had given him a presidential tie clasp. “That shows he is a caring man,” the candidate said. “Believe me, I ßoated out of that room.”
By the end of the speeches, the crowd had thinned considerably. The young children had been spirited off for bedtime, and the teenagers had presumably found activities of greater interest. State treasurer Kay Bailey Hutchison introduced a long list of local candidates and officeholders. As each candidate took his or her place in the line before the stage, the crowd grew smaller until it seemed that there were more people in front of the stage than in the audience. The program said there would be country and western dance lessons for the next hour and a half, but when I left, just one delighted man was leading the tall, graceful instructor around the dance ßoor.
While this campaign kickoff was no bacchanalia, neither was it the sanctimonious gathering of local Republicans that one watching the convention on television might suspect. Various Republicans I spoke with were either apologetic about or plainly embarrassed by the convention. It didn’t seem to be the party they knew or wanted. A Republican officeholder said, “I don’t think we are going to become a radical party. Last night all the talk was Free Trade Agreement, court decisions, trucking deregulation, and so on. When Republicans talk to a Republican audience, that is what they say.”
Well, that was indeed what they said in Plano. But the fate of the party depends on whether Republicans say that to national audiences, not just to the locals.