“Having been the comptroller of public accounts, a railroad commissioner, a state senator, and a member of the House, I know what everyone at the Capitol knows: The governor doesn’t have that much to do with what happens. Bob Bullock wanted welfare reform, so we passed it. Pete Laney wanted children’s health insurance, so we passed it. Everyone at the Capitol knows, whether they’ll say it or not, that on school finance, or what have you, the governor is the last person to get a copy of the legislation. This is not Louisiana, where the governor is extremely powerful. In Texas, the governor is the last guy to hear about anything.”Even so, George W. Bush has been a special case. As long as the economy is good, a governor who doesn’t have a hands-on attitude is going to do fine. He can be very popular. Things roll along. He doesn’t have to know about the details of welfare reform or school finance or taxes. All that matters is what the polls say. When there’s a lot of money in the treasury, the governor can pacify everybody. But when the economy goes bad, you’d better not have that kind of governor—and you’d better not have that kind of president. You’d better have someone who knows how to pull the levers of government and get the state, or the country, out of trouble. George may be that kind of governor, but we just don’t know it.”
John Sharp was the comptroller of public accounts from 1991 to 1999 and a railroad commissioner from 1987 to 1991. He is a principal with the Austin office of the accounting firm Ryan and Company.
“To his credit, George Bush is a disciplined campaigner. He stays on message, and I think that really matters more than anything else. He seemingly does not tire of saying the same thing over and over and over again. If you ask me what time it is, I’m likely to tell you about the history of timekeeping and clock making, about the manufacture of timepieces and other forms of measurement, about the kinds of regulation put in place by the government. If you ask George Bush what time it is, he’ll say, ‘I think Americans have the right to bear arms.’
“He’s very careful in the language he uses. Generally speaking, he never talks about religious programs’ being funded by the government; he talks about faith-based this and faith-based that. He avoids what could be hot buttons. What has happened in Texas since he became governor is that we’ve moved social services to faith-based organizations, we’re moving toward faith-based influence in schools, and we’ve changed the drug-and-alcohol-treatment program so that much of what remains is faith-based. This is a shield and a screen for what is actually taking place, and that is a delivery of influence over every aspect of our lives to the Religious Right.
“I think it’s going to be a very close, very tight race. The polls have no idea what’s going to happen, and neither do I. Ask me two weeks before the election. Americans more and more make up their mind in the last ten days, particularly women. That said, women are going to be a problem for him, and not just because we vote Democratic by and large. We’re enormously concerned about the selection of Supreme Court justices, given the likelihood that the balance on the court could be tipped, and women could be restricted in the choices they make about bearing children. Abortion is going to be a huge issue for us. The gun issue is going to be a big issue. Bush continues to be enthusiastic about the opportunity for people to carry concealed weapons, which I think is dangerous and bad for our kids. The NRA has so much money and so much clout that it’s gonna be really tough, but I think organizations of mothers against gun violence are going to grow. We know all this gun stuff is stupid. I think we’re going to be exercised about it. It took Mothers Against Drunk Driv- ing a while before they had a serious effect, but the numbers are larger here.
“Beyond those issues, what’s hurting Texas are the numbers. When we became a state that voluntarily complied with environmental laws, we couldn’t help but have bad numbers. To be able to stay even with the other states, you have to be really aggressive about getting money available to the state from the federal government. If you fall behind and are not in there fighting for your share, others get it and your numbers drop.
“I guess the part that’s most disturbing is the crowing about cutting taxes while there are still children who don’t have health care. The message is wrong.”
Ann Richards was the governor from 1991 to 1995 and the treasurer from 1983 to 1991. She is a senior adviser to the Washington, D.C., law firm Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson, and Hand.
“I’ve never met a politician with less passion about the issues than George W. Bush. I don’t like Phil Gramm, and I don’t like Kay Bailey Hutchison, but I have no doubt in my mind what they care about. I couldn’t tell you anything Bush cares about. I’ve never even seen him get passionate about his own candidacy.
“Because of that lack of passion, he’s willing to change his positions. He has no core. He flip-flops 100 percent because he doesn’t care. Before I announced for governor, his Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission chairman said the Clean Air Act—which Bush’s own father signed!—wasn’t based on science and that he wasn’t going to implement it. I made a bunch of speeches attacking Bush and then his TNRCC chairman changes his mind. Suddenly it’s okay. He’s going to comply.
“Let’s talk about education. We have class-size limits that are supposedly mandatory but are so watered-down that they are in fact voluntary, we still don’t mandate kindergarten, and teacher salaries are in the toilet. I saw Bush bragging recently in Pennsylvania about his $3,000 pay raise for teachers. He opposed mandatory teacher pay raises! He was forced to sign the bill! He’s been dragged kicking and screaming to keep us thirtieth in the country in teacher pay. Without the last governor’s race and Representative [Paul] Sadler taking up the issue, we’d be even worse off. What about health benefits for teachers? Right now they don’t get any state benefits. How can you run for president when your state with a large surplus won’t pay for health insurance for teachers? A secretary in the General Land Office makes more money and gets better health care and better retirement benefits than the teacher teaching my kids.
“One more thing. This crap about Texas being a weak-governor state? Look at your constitution. The job of the governor of Texas is to present a budget to the Legislature, to appoint people to implement it, to set priorities, and to enforce them through the line-item veto. Few governors recently, Bush included, have been willing to use the line-item veto. The governor is only weak if he decides to abdicate his authority to the Legislature. Early on, I believe, Bush decided there would be no line-item veto, no special sessions. That’s politics, not governing. As a practitioner of the art of politics, he’s wonderful. In terms of policy, he stinks.”
Garry Mauro was the land commissioner from 1983 to 1999. In 1998 he ran unsuccessfully for governor against George W. Bush. A practicing lawyer, he serves on the board of directors of Fannie Mae and raises money for Democratic candidates across the country.
“He’s going to lose for three reasons.
“One, the smirk. This is not a facial tic. This is from within. It reflects a spoiled brat’s sense of entitlement and a mean streak that we’ve seen flare up. I think that Bush’s sense of privilege is going to grow real tiresome real fast. The more you get to know him, the less you get to like him.
“Two, deep down, this guy is shallow. His one hundred experts and fundraisers and media handlers and powderers and puffers have done a good job so far of keeping his shallowness under cover. But during the stress of the primary campaign, the media, and even some Republicans, began to ask whether this guy really has it. It’s not about intellect. He doesn’t have weight or depth.
“Three, he is a corporate wet dream, a loyal performer for the fat cats who’ve put money in him. If the voters and the media focus on the favors he has done for rich people, they’ll see Bush for what he really is: a hired hand for corporate interests. That’s not what the general public wants its president to be.”
Jim Hightower was the agriculture commissioner from 1983 to 1991. He is the host of a daily talk show syndicated to forty radio stations across the country and the author of If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote, They Would Have Given Us Candidates, which was published in February by HarperCollins.
“I disagree with the Republican pollsters who advise their candidates that tax cuts are the win-all in campaigns and the recipe to stay in power. No one voluntarily goes and pays a tax increase. Taxes aren’t popular. But I suspect that the overwhelming majority of people would rather pay down the deficit or stabilize medicare and medicaid and Social Security than have a tax cut. There is the weakness in George W. Bush’s campaign. He can’t distinguish between no new taxes on the one hand and surpluses on the other. I believe that most people, given the choice between a $30-a-year tax cut or funding statewide kindergarten or giving a raise to teachers or funding biomedical research or building highways, would turn down the tax cut. For that money, people would rather see Texas move up from the bottom of the fifty states to something more competitive and respectable.”
Ben Barnes was the lieutenant governor from 1969 to 1973 and the Speaker of the Texas House from 1965 to 1969. He is the CEO and owner of EntreCorp, an Austin consulting firm.
“You can’t make George W. Bush out to be a mean guy. You can’t pretend he’s an ultra-right-winger; he’s no Tom DeLay. But he’s lighter than my grandma’s biscuits. He has the weakest, thinnest, briefest record in public life of any major party nominee in American history. I put a challenge to Ari Fleischer of the Bush campaign. I asked, ‘For a million dollars, can you name me a major party nominee with a thinner, shorter record in public life?’ He couldn’t do it. I put the same challenge to Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, and he named two: Ulysses S. Grant and Wendell Willkie. I flat-out disagree with him about Grant, but Willkie is interesting. At least he was a plausible nominee because everyone saw him as a brilliant leader and a gifted man. These are not adjectives used to describe George Bush.
“When I raise this issue with the Bush camp, they say something to the effect of, ‘Oh, Begala, you believe all wisdom resides in Washington, D.C. He was a businessman.’ I love that. Okay, let’s talk about his record in business. With only his family’s fortune and a trust fund—not exactly a bootstrap story—he started an oil company and ran it into the ground. So that’s his business experience. He went on from there to be bailed out by his father’s wealthy friends until he landed as the front man for the Texas Rangers. He then conned the good people of Arlington into raising their own taxes to subsidize the team’s stadium, and eventually he walked away with a nearly $15 million profit that made Hillary Clinton’s cattle futures look like Pokémon cards. Plus he traded Sammy Sosa. Does America want a president who would trade Sammy Sosa?”
Paul Begala has been a political consultant in Austin and Washington, D.C., off and on for seventeen years, advising such candidates as Congressman Lloyd Doggett of Austin, former Georgia governor Zell Miller, and most famously, Bill Clinton. He is a co-host, with Oliver North, of the nightly MSNBC talk show Equal Time.