texasmonthly.com: Would you say that the major difference between the past rule of conservative Democrats and the present rule of Republicans is a greater emphasis on ideology by the latter?
Paul Burka: This is going to be a long answer. The conservative Democrats—I’m talking about people like Sam Rayburn, LBJ, John Connally, Lloyd Bentsen, Allan Shivers, and Bill Hobby—ran the state from the fifties into the eighties, when Texas was a one-party Democratic state. Since that tradition is dead, it is going to take some explaining. At the beginning of the period, Texas was still largely rural, Southern, and colonial, which is to say that it exported raw materials to northern industries and imported their finished goods. The economy was almost entirely based on oil and agriculture (plus some defense industries, some insurance)—that is, things that came out of the ground. The attitude of political and business leaders was that the primary purpose of state government was to foster a “good bidness climate,” which meant low taxes (especially on business), low spending on state services, few regulations, and hostility to labor unions. They were Democrats not for ideological reasons but because the Democrats had been in power in Texas since, and because of, the Civil War, and if you wanted to get elected, you had to be a Democrat. The Legislature was overwhelmingly white, Democratic, and male. (When Tom Craddick, the current Republican Speaker, was elected to the House in 1968, he became one of nine Republicans in a body of 150.) Because the Democratic party was so pro-business, the Republicans had a hard time distinguishing themselves on state issues. They were really an offshoot of the national party—anticommunist, anti-big government, anti-LBJ in particular, whom they regarded as too liberal and too corrupt. They were strong in Houston and Dallas and in the oil patch (East Texas, the Permian Basin), but had no way to get a foothold. The real fight was between the conservative and liberal wings of the Democratic party, and it was pretty close in the fifties and early sixties. The conservative Democrats were very strong in most of rural Texas but East Texas was very poor and very populist (but culturally conservative), and the large working class white population in the cities tended to be hostile to big business (but also culturally conservative). The conservative Democrats had no choice but to be pragmatic. They had to attract enough conservatives into the Democratic primary (many of them Republicans who wanted to vote for courthouse and legislative offices) to beat the liberals, and then they had to get the liberals to vote for them in the general election, so they could beat the Republicans. That was a delicate balancing act, and it required throwing the liberals a bone now and then—not many at first, but more and more, as the minority population grew. The pivotal moment came in 1964, on all sides. Governor John Connally persuaded the business lobby that the state had to put significant resources into higher education, and from then on the conservative Democrats accepted that a healthy economy required more spending on education. On the Republican side, the insurgent Goldwater conservatives took over the Republican party, nationally and in Texas, and the Civil Rights Act of that year, which integrated public accommodations, began the white flight of cultural conservatives out of the Democratic party (as LBJ predicted it would). After Connally, the system began to unravel. The next two governors were rural Democrats who didn’t care about keeping the state party strong (or much of anything else). School busing imposed by federal judges accelerated white flight from the cities to the suburbs. Urban decay in the industrial cities of the North caused companies and their executives to look for new homes, and Texas was the Sunbelt state with the most advanced economy. The new arrivals had voted Republican in the North and they voted Republican here. So the conservative Democrats began to lose their domination of the business leadership. They also began to suffer defections among middle income voters due to cultural issues. Issues like school busing and flag burning and drugs and legalized abortion changed the Republican party from one that was primarily interested in a Main Street economic conservatism to one that was primarily motivated by cultural conservatism and an increasingly hostile attitude toward government. Even as early as the famous Democratic convention in 1968, where the Chicago cops busted the hippies’ heads, it was obvious that the conservative Democrats (who were mostly but not exclusively from the South) had no place in the national party. The liberals were taking over, and Texas is not, has never been, and never will be liberal. Here in Texas, the conservative Democrats still dominated the Legislature well into the eighties, thanks to their residual strength in the small towns, but Reagan was a magnet who drew the next generation into the Republican Party. In retrospect, the conservative Democrats turned out to be more Democrats than conservatives. They were pro-business, but they would raise taxes when the state was in a pinch, and they would spend money on schools and health care. Rural Texas was the swing constituency, and a conservative populism based on cultural issues came to appeal more to small-town Texas than economic populism. The Republicans won with an ideological message that was much clearer than anything the Democrats had to offer. However, that message was developed when the party was on the outside. Now the Republican party is the dog that caught the car. It has to govern. The problems that are out there—above all, demographic change and its impact on education and health care—exist independently of ideology. They can be ignored, but they can’t be wished away. So far the Republicans have chosen to deal with them inside an ideological framework. The special session, which I wrote about in my story about the governor’s race, embraced “starve the beast” fiscal policies that will effectively strangle state government, including public and higher education, for the next five to ten years. That’s the kind of leadership that we have. I had dinner with one of the governor’s closest advisers recently, and he said, “That’s what the taxpayers want.” I don’t doubt that, but a governor is supposed to be the governor for everybody, including those kids whose only hope for the future is a good public school education and who don’t even know that ideology exists.
texasmonthly.com: You say that if every Texas voter were required to cast a ballot, Kinky Friedman would be the clear winner. Has contemporary apathy toward politics and the major parties really become that great?
PB: Yes. Look how few people vote in party primaries. The parties have gravitated so far to the extremes—both parties—that they don’t speak to ordinary people. A Republican consultant who went to the state convention told me that the activists have no use for public schools at all. There is so much dislike of both parties, and of contemporary politics, that if everybody cast a vote, I feel certain that the majority would vote for the “none of the above candidate.”
texasmonthly.com: Do you think that the situation created by the passage of the new business tax in an effort to shore up school funding will develop into a handicap for whoever sits in the governor’s office come next year?
PB: I probably ought to delete this question, because the premise is incorrect. But I’m going to answer it, because I think it reflects a widespread misunderstanding that the new business tax represents “an effort to shore up school funding.” It does nothing of the sort. Not one penny raised by the business tax goes to public schools. All the money is dedicated by law to reducing property taxes to a rate of $1 per $100 of property valuation. Even if the revenue exceeds all predictions, all of it still must go to property tax cuts unless the Legislature undoes the dedication. Back to ideology: The Republican leadership could not have gotten Republicans to vote for the business tax if any of the money had been used to pay for anything except tax cuts. Whether this will be a handicap for a governor depends upon who the governor is and what he or she wants to do. Rick Perry signed off on this plan, so he certainly would not regard it as a handicap; it reflects his ideology. The other candidates (except the libertarian) would probably feel otherwise.
texasmonthly.com: To what extent has Rick Perry’s long tenure in the governor’s mansion been the result of luck?
PB: All successful politicians are lucky politicians. But I don’t want to suggest that Perry’s tenure is all the result of luck. He had the fortitude to roll the dice and change parties. Sure, he got lucky that Jim Hightower was overconfident in the Ag Commissioner’s race. He got lucky that George W. Bush got the Republican nomination for president and then won the fight over Florida, so Perry could fill the vacancy without having to run a race. The biggest luck of all is that Kay Bailey Hutchison didn’t run against him, twice. She would have beaten him in the primary both times. So what? He doesn’t scare. He is an astute, disciplined politician. He deserves respect for what he has accomplished politically.
texasmonthly.com: Given your statements that the Texas Democratic Party has been reduced to irrelevancy and that the only Texas election that matters is the Republican primary, what do you think it would take to return Texas to being, as you put it, “a true two-party state?”
PB: Texas was a true two-party state for a brief time—basically, from the election of Bill Clements as governor in 1978 until the election of George W. Bush in 1994. From then on, the Democrats have been routed. Texas has been a one-party state since the Republicans won the state House of Representatives in 2002. So the entire process, from the election of the first prominent GOP state official to complete dominance took 24 years. I don’t think you’d be far off base if you’d say that it will take equally as long for the Democrats to regain power. That’s 2026. I do think that the Democrats will be able to win a Senate seat here or a governor’s race there. But they won’t have legislative majorities.
texasmonthly.com: What special challenges are there when writing about an event shrouded in speculation (such as an election) that has yet to occur? Do you have a method for determining how far your conclusions should reach?
PB: The best method for writing about an event like the governor’s race is to do my job right, which is to say, do a lot of reporting. Talk to the political pros, the consultants. Most of them will tell you how they analyze a race. It’s not much of a secret. Everybody is working with the same numbers and the same parameters. Then I try to synthesize the answers into a likely scenario. So here it is: If Perry stays around 40 percent, he’s going to win. So the only way to beat him is to cut into his base. Bell can’t do that; he’s a Democrat. Strayhorn is better positioned to do that. And, she might be able to cut into Bell’s base as well. Then do some fiddling with numbers. Give Strayhorn a third of Perry’s base: 1/3 of 50 percent (the solidly Republican portion of the electorate) is 16 plus percent. Give her a third of Bell’s base: 1/3 of 35 percent is 11 plus percent. Give her a third of the independents: another 5 percent. That gets her to 32—33 percent. Not enough. Bell can get to the same number by holding 3/4 of his base plus 1/3 of the independents—a pretty likely scenario, but also not enough. Only one of these two scenario’s, Bell’s or Strayhorn’s can be right, and both could be wrong. So it’s pretty clear that unless Perry loses votes, down to, say, 35 percent, he can’t be defeated. Then the question becomes, how can that be done? Well, maybe the anti-tax conservatives can be wooed and won by Strayhorn—but not by a Democrat. What you come up with is that Perry can’t take the race for granted, but he is a very strong favorite unless something unusual occurs. I have left Kinky Friedman out of this analysis. If he were to catch on, if he were to get his voters to the polls, everything could turn upside down. I hate to be a cynic—in fact, I’m not at all cynical about politics—but it’s a good rule of thumb that any candidate who talks about getting new voters to the polls is a losing candidate.
texasmonthly.com: If Texas did have a provision for a runoff election in a five-way governor’s race, do you think that Perry would be in greater danger of losing the coming election?
PB: There’s no question that a runoff would be very dangerous for Perry. The majority of the voters are not for him. That’s why he is at 38 percent.
texasmonthly.com: If you could design the ideal gubernatorial candidate, what would the top three qualities of that person be, and why?
PB: Vision. Charisma. Public spiritedness (by which I mean that policy is placed above ideology). The desire to help every Texan. In my lifetime, John Connally and George W. Bush—Governor Bush, that is—are the models.