In reading the last couple of days of convention coverage, I found two key takeaways that have been overlooked:
(1) Rick Perry is still very strong with the base of his party. He still connects with the rank and file when he makes a rousing speech, as he did at the convention in Fort Worth. Of course, Perry was addressing the 18,000 strongest and most loyal Republicans, and there was confusion about whether the boos when Perry spoke up for David Dewhurst, his choice for U.S. senator, were for Perry or for Dewhurst, or both. But Perry’s statement that he did not intend to ride off into the sunset was a warning shot across the bows of the wannabes, most prominent among them Greg Abbott.
It is still unclear (as it has been since he left the presidential race) whether Perry is just trying to find a way to remain relevant, or if he has any kind of plan other than his expressed interest in running for president in 2016.
(2) The second most important takeaway from the Republican convention is that the platform seeks to change the way the speaker is selected. The platform urges that the pledge card system, in use since at least the 1960s, be scrapped. Lawmakers give speaker candidates a leg up on the next election by signing pledge cards to signify that they will support a particular speaker candidate–usually the incumbent–in the next session. Obviously, the greatest beneficiary of this system is the incumbent speaker, who discovers who is for him and who is not (although any speaker worth his salt already knows). The platform would further urge that the speaker be elected by a secret ballot, thus making it less likely that a victorious speaker candidate can rain retribution on a member through punitive committee assignments. Next, the platform calls on lawmakers to do away with the pledge card system in which lawmakers swear fealty to an incumbent speaker in exchange for presumed favors to be granted at some future time. Finally, it urges Republican legislators to vote for speaker in caucus by secret ballot to protect members on the losing side. Note that this system applies to Republican members only. In 2011, the Republican members did vote for speaker, in a closed-door meeting, but the rules called for members opposing Joe Straus, the incumbent speaker, to stand if they were opposed to giving him another term. Obviously, this process was not akin to a secret ballot.
Readers with long memories will recall that the means of choosing a speaker was debated in the days leading up to the Eighty-first Legislature. The key issue was an amendment by Geren for a secret ballot on the choice of speaker. But the vote on the Geren amendment had to be public, and the incumbent speaker, Tom Craddick, had enough votes to prevail. I stress again that any speaker worth his salt does not need a vote to know who is for him and who isn’t.
Typically, a speaker’s race is decided when a candidate lays out his or her votes and the number is greater than 76. This was not the case in the Eighty-first Legislature, when election day passed without Craddick, the incumbent, laying out his votes. Craddick twisted in the wind during the weeks between election day and the convening of the Eighty-second Legislature, and when it became clear that he did not have the votes, he relinquished the chair.
It is inevitable in the age of the social media and the 24-hour news cycle that old forms of politics are going to give way to new ones. Members of the public are going to claim their right to be involved in the selection of the speaker, although ultimately their only tool is to persuade members how they should vote, and if what occurred in the weeks leading up to the Eighty-second session, that persuasion is likely to be none too polite.
In the end, the choice of the speaker will be made by the members, not by the public. The process may be different, but the outcome is likely to be the same as it was in the days when pledge cards were the deciding factor. The point is–let me repeat–any speaker worth his salt doesn’t need a pledge card, or the absence of one, to know who is for him or who is against him. Every speaker has a “team.” The speaker knows who is on his team. Bryan Hughes is challenging Straus for speaker (and other candidates may arise), but Straus knew long before Hughes announced his intentions that Hughes was against him.
The desire to be on the “team” is sewn into human nature. People want to be on the team because they want to get things done, or because they share a point of view with other members of the team, or just because it is natural to want to be on the prevailing side.
That will be true in the next speaker’s race, and in the one after that, and in the one after that. The members who are on the outside can do nothing to change their status. This is how politics works.
The likelihood is that, when all the ballots have been counted on election day, Joe Straus will have enough support to be elected speaker. He will have most of the Republicans and many of the Democrats, who have no one else to turn to, short of making a Faustian bargain with the Republicans. (A number of Democrats made such a bargain with Craddick, and they prospered for awhile, but in the end they had to rejoin the Democratic ranks or face defeat. It could happen again.)
The pledge card system, which has lasted half a century, will not last forever. Nothing does. The most ideological Republicans want to change the system so that it benefits Republicans and only Republicans–and in particular, not the elected class, but the agitators and the pressure groups who want to bully politicians into doing their dirty work. A lot of people believe, as I do, that Texas politics is headed on a course that will inevitably result in the replication here of the way Washington works, where the majority party controls everything. I hope it doesn’t happen, but if it does, remember, politics never stands still.