Four for Four
George W. Bush got elected by promising to focus on welfare, education, tort reform, and juvenile crime. After his first one hundred days, he’s batting a thousand.
Four things, George W. Bush kept saying. My legislative program is just four things—education reform, tort reform, welfare reform, and tougher juvenile justice laws. He made them the basis of this campaign against Ann Richards last fall and repeated the litany so often that reporters began baiting him to name something else, anything, that he was interested in. Bush went along with the joke in his State of the State speech in January. “Number five,” he told the legislature, “is pass the first four things.”
Bush’s discipline has overcome the traditional weakness of Texas’ governors, who have few constitutional powers and generally get elected on pound-the-table issues (opposing new taxes, lowering insurance premiums and utility rates, cutting state employees) only to find themselves left out of the big fights. But Bush came to office with a mandate on the major issues, and as long as he stayed on track, he could not be ignored. As his administration passed the one-hundred-day mark—that artificial but widely recognized moment at which the performance of the chief executive is first measured—the former managing general partner of the Texas Rangers was on a winning streak that seemed likely to last through the legislative session. No first-term governor in memory has had such a high batting average on issues of such importance.
What’s more, Bush has managed to build his record without twisting any arms—or, as he puts it, “spending my political capital.” Like Ann Richards, he has high popularity numbers outside the statehouse; unlike Richards, he enjoys equally standing inside of Austin’s inbred community of legislators, lobbyists, and other political pros. Even Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, a politician of the old school who is a legendary hard sell, is an admirer. “I’m really impressed with that young man,” Texas’ highest-ranking Democrat volunteered during an interview in March. “He’s a fine fella.”
Not a bad start for someone who was regarded as political lightweight when he announced for governor a year and a half ago. A skeptic could point out that Bush owes much of his popularity to his family name (he got a bigger ovation than U.S. senator Phil Gramm at Gramm’s own presidential fundraiser in Dallas back in February) and owes much of his legislative success to timing (lawmakers were already working on most of his issues before he began campaigning for governor). But he has also shown a talent for insider politics that no one, not even Bush himself, knew he had. He has developed a breezy, bantering, nonthreatening political style that makes him one of the boys in a way his father never was.
At this point there are no limits to his political prospects. But even as a Bush celebrated his legislative victories, signs abounded that some rough times lay ahead. Many legislators who supported his plan for deregulating public school districts did so more out of resignation over the sorry state of education than out of conviction that Bush’s remedy would work. And his nonpartisan approach is already being challenged by Republican activists, who are pressuring him to campaign against Democratic legislators in 1996. Just as Bush benefited from low expectations during his campaign and early weeks of his governorship, so he must now face the prospect of measuring up to the high expectations he himself has created. In politics, as in baseball, no winning streak lasts forever.
One morning in early May, the former president of the United States showed up at the governor’s office to meet the staff. The elder Bush was formal to point of being prim, his New England upbringing evident in every word. When he asked a Secret Service agent what Barbara Bush was doing at the moment, George W. broke in. “Well, I hope she’s making some money,” the governor said, “because God knows we need it.” His father shut his eyes and grimaced.
George W.’s off-the-cuff style has been an essential element of the success of his first hundred days. From a legislator’s perspective, he has demonstrated none of the flaws of his recent predecessors: Ann Richards’ inaccessibility, Bill Clements’ imperiousness, Mark White’s absorption with his own political interests to the exclusion of everyone else’s. He actually seems to like the legislators and the mysteries of the lawmaking process. He pops into offices unannounced; once he dropped in on El Paso Democrat Nancy McDonald, saying he wanted to meet the mother of Chuck McDonald, whose job as Ann Richard’s spokesman during the race for governor was to bash Bush. Many of his conversations involve his desire to develop an institutional memory. He is constantly asking questions: Who are the best lobbyists and the best legislators; what are the rules governing conference committees. He even asked a black legislator how the first bill giving minorities a share of state contracts—a divisive issue today—managed to become a law. (The answer, Bush was surprised to hear, was that the idea originally wasn’t controversial.) When he invites legislators to his office, he sometimes has country music playing in the background—hard-core country, songs like “Bubba Shot the Jukebox,” one of his favorites. He has greeted visitors while wearing a baseball cap and likes to show off his collection of autographed balls—including one signed by his mother.
The relaxed atmosphere extends to the Governor’s Mansion. He invites key lawmakers like Paul Sadler of Henderson, the chairman of the House Public Education Committee, to the mansion for one-on-one chats. At social events he drinks nonalcoholic beer (O’Doul’s) from the can. His wife, Laura dresses tastefully but casually (pants and a sweater for an informal dinner) but has been known to drop in on an evening meeting barefooted.
Most legislators, Democrats as well as Republicans, are more comfortable with Bush than they were with Richards. Even Richard’s political allies had to wait days, sometimes weeks, for an appointment, in part because she was so sought-after as a speaker that she was frequently out of town. But she also had no affinity for the legislative process or for the masculine humor that seems to permeate the Capitol. Bush does. He tells a good yarn, playing the role of all the participants at a meeting in which the CEO of a Fortune 500 company gets a lesson in politics from Bullock and Speaker Pete Laney. In his phone conversations with Bullock, he addresses his lieutenant governor as “Bully,” an inspired wordplay that he pronounces with a deliberately thick Texas accent. His enthusiasm for his job is that of a child who just has been let loose in the greatest playground in the world.
The pivotal moment of the first one hundred days was Day 24, when a crisis in the tort-reform negotiations made Bush decide whether to govern by compromise or by force. It started when a group of negotiators overseen by Bullock reached a behind-the-scenes agreement on the first bill in the tort-reform package—a limit on the amount of punitive damages that a plaintiff could collect. Bullock gave his blessing to a compromise formula, but Bush’s staff told the governor that the ceiling of $1 million for pain and suffering was too high. No deal, Bush said.
Bullock was upset. His number one goal for the session was avoiding a partisan meltdown in a Senate comprised of seventeen democrats and fourteen Republicans. The only way to avoid open warfare was to get everyone to sign on to an agreement—but Bush had killed it. There were some tense moments between Bush and Bullock (though neither will say just how tense for the record). A leading tort-reform lobbyist warned that Bush would veto any bill with a pain-and-suffering ceiling greater than $500,000. But Bush distanced himself from the lobby. He would accept $750,000, he said. Impressed, Bullock told negotiators that he was siding with Bush.
But the crisis was not over. When the agreement was put to paper, the proposed bill turned out to have a loophole that Bush had not been aware of. The date that the law took effect allowed plaintiffs whose injuries might not be discovered for years (such as breast implant patients) to sue under the old punitive-damages rules. Tort-reform advocates tried to get Bush to intervene again, and Bush found himself at a fork in the road.
He knew he could get the loophole closed if he wanted to. He could threaten a veto, threaten to call the Legislature back to a special session. Eventually he would win; enough Democrats would vote for tort reform that he could get a tougher punitive-damages bill. But if he governed by force, he would expend much of his political capital. Resentful Democrats would be less inclined to support the rest of his program.
For Bush, the situation was all too familiar—and familial. It reminded him of his father, who lost his political capital after Operation Desert Storm in battles with a Democratic Congress. Now George W. faced the prospect of alienating a Democratic Legislature over a single clause in a bill that was otherwise to his liking. He wasn’t going to risk it. He had agreed to the deal, he said, and he wasn’t going back on his word. Bullock, of course, was delighted. Now Bush jokes with Bullock about the episode that cemented their relationship: “You gonna get mad at me today, Bully?” Not so thrilled were Republicans, in and out of Austin, who wanted Bush to force the Democrats into an embarrassing vote against tort reform. But that’s not the kind of governor Bush has chosen to be.
An aide appeared at the doorway to the Stephen F. Austin room in the Governor’s Mansion, summoning Bush to the phone. Across the street, the House of Representatives had begun debating a complete rewrite of the state’s education laws that included his home-rule plan for school districts. He returned a minute later with the first report from his staff: Everything was going well.
Well, not everything. Our dinner time interview, for instance. Consistent with Bush’s style, he had turned it into a social occasion. He was mimicking Ross Perot one minute, then pointing out names of former governors engraved on the silverware the next: Connally knives. Shivers spoons. And it seemed to me, he was asking more questions than I was. What was Dolph Briscoe like as governor? What did I think of home-rule school districts? Why are the big electric utility companies known around the Capitol as the “eels”?
The aide appeared in the doorway again. Bush disappeared and returned with a jaunty stride. The first test vote had gone his way, by a margin of around twenty votes. “It’s holding, it’s holding,” he said.
But when I crossed the street to the Capitol a few minutes later, the mood in the House was hardly ebullient. The buzz of private conversation that usually serves as a backdrop for debate had given way to a heavy silence. The aisles, normally filled with lawmakers exchanging pleasantries and soliciting votes, were empty. Members were seated at their desks—except for the entire delegation of black and Hispanic lawmakers. They stood at the front of the room with arms folded and their faces grave behind Sylvester Turner of Houston, who was speaking in opposition to Bush’s home-rule plan. The show of solidarity stretched across the entire width of the House as Turner argued that without state oversight, home-rule districts could create enclaves of segregated schools and programs. “This takes us back to the nineteen-fifties,” he said. “We are being left behind.”
Turner lost, but the dramatic scene suggested that Bush’s next hundred days would not be as successful as his first. Democrats have spent most of their session running from their party identification, but the battle over home rule marked the first time that a political opposition began to coalesce against the governor. His perfect batting average will be hard to sustain once the Legislature goes home and the laws he has championed begin to take effect. Home rule is an immense gamble; it is likely to deliver local schools into the hands of zealots as it is to rescue them. Though allowing Texasn to carry concealed handguns is not officially part of Bush’s program, it is sufficiently identified with him that it too is a gamble. His support for arming Texans will be recalled every time a senseless death occurs.
The problem for Bush is that it’s hard for a governor to have an agenda when the Legislature is out of town. For the next nineteen months there will be little for him to do except make speeches, cut ribbons, and fill vacancies on the autonomous boards and commissions that run state government. A Bush staffer says, “I’m scared he’s going to get so bored that he won’t run for reelection.”
The biggest pitfall ahead for Bush is the 1996 campaign season. In a presidential election year, he will be hard-pressed to maintain the nonpartisan stance that earned him the trust of Bob Bullock and Pete Laney. He will no doubt lead the state GOP campaign against Bill Clinton and will be under intense pressure to campaign for the entire Republican ticket, which will include challengers to Democratic legislators who supported his four issues. Republicans have already announced a “76 in ‘96” drive to elect a majority of the 150-member House of Representatives; they need to pick up just two seats to control the Senate. Bush told me that he plans to campaign for GOP candidates seeking vacant seats but not for those running against Democratic incumbents. It will take all his political skill to satisfy his own party without alienating Democrats whose support he may want in the 1997 legislative session.
What Bush needs to carry him through the months ahead is the long-awaited fifth issue—something that is consistent with his problem-solving, nonpartisan image. He is thinking about tackling the state’s outmoded tax structure, which is too dependent on local property taxes for funding education. By no coincidence, tax restructuring is Bullock’s top priority as well. The idea is to shift the burden away from the property to a business tax that taps the people who really have the wealthy in this state—doctors, lawyers, and other providers of professional services who don’t currently pay consumption taxes. The revenue—neutral plan would be sold as property tax relief. The problem, of course, is that most of the taxpayers who would be affected vote Republican. If Bush can pull this off and go five for five, that really would be one for the record books.