Milton Friedman may have died in 2006, but don’t tell that to the economic conservatives at the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity. To celebrate the father of free-market Reaganomics, the group joined others around the nation to mark what would have been the Nobel Laureate’s 99th birthday on July 31.
The meeting place, Zax Restaurant & Bar in Austin, hardly felt like the best location for a gathering of a group closely aligned with the Tea Party. It seemed more like a place for yuppies seeking salmon salad and Pinot Grigio. About 30 celebrators milled around the restaurant, taking advantage of free drink tickets and a table full of bar food. There was no birthday cake.
It was the group’s second “tweet-up,” aimed at bringing online conservative activists together in person. “The last one was younger,” said Brittany Eck, a legislative staffer who frequently attends the group’s events. “It wasn’t Milton Friedman [-themed].”
No one spent much time talking about Friedman’s policies, though. Instead, the group’s director, Peggy Venable, transitioned quickly from a personal remembrance of Friedman’s 2003 visit to the Texas Legislature to the inefficiencies in Texas education.
Americans for Prosperity—with the like-minded groups EmpowerTexans and Texas Public Policy Foundation—successfully pressured Republican legislators this session to slash billions from education and health and human services budgets rather than use money from the state’s piggy bank, the Rainy Day Fund. But even after a win—the state cut almost $5 billion from education alone—AFP is hardly slowing down. “We don’t have unlimited resources,” Venable said after her talk. “We can’t sustain the spending that we’ve been doing” in education.
Attendees were offered big yellow stickers proclaiming “More Education for our Dollars BEFORE more Dollars for Education.” Venable yielded the floor to Chris Covo, a new graduate heading Americans for Prosperity’s group for young people, America’s Next Impact. The group is focused on cutting costs in higher education to reduce the burden on students. Covo told the crowd about his own struggles with student debt and pushed for reform. Covo later explained that he is planning a tour of Texas cities to produce “Generation Debt Happy Hours.”
“A toast to our outstanding payments,” he calls it.
Covo was a hit with the Friedman-loving attendees. But few probably heard his confession: He told me he’s never finished one of the economist’s books. He owns four or five, but he’s never made it past the first 20 pages.
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JIM HIGHTOWER’S CAR
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Texas Observer former editor and famous populist Jim Hightower has taken many a left turn in this all-American, union-made car. Now he’s driving a 21st-century hybrid and he graciously handed his beloved ’97 Ford Escort over to The Texas Observer and for auction.
If you’d like to sit in Jim’s place behind the wheel of this illustrious vehicle – make a bid tomorrow! And thanks to Jim for his generous donation!
Jim’s ’97 Ford Escort
• exterior and interior – good condition
• mileage – 79,341
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BOB BULLOCK’S DESK
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Bob Bullock’s boot-scrape marks are still on the edge of this storied desk from his 1994 campaign for Lieutenant. Governor. It’s an L-shaped cherrywood-finished desk with a glass top on the short side.
Bullock, one of the giants of Texas political history, served two terms as Texas’ 38th Lieutenant Governor from 1991 to 1999. His career spanned nearly 40 years, and he was credited as being the principal architect of modern Texas government.
But if you’re eying this desk, you already know this and much more about this famous Texan. And you’ll be interested to know that after the campaign it was used by former Texas Observer board president and current board member Jim Marston in his Environmental Defense Fund office, then the desk went on to serve at Texas Progress Council for Director Sandie Haverlah before donated to the Observer. Next – your home or office?
PLEASE NOTE: Winner is responsible for picking up the desk in Austin, TX. All funds go to benefit The Texas Observer, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Amount paid for the item is tax-deductible minus its estimated fair-market value of $400.
Once upon a time, Rick Perry was all about public education. In his 2006 re-election campaign, he devoted an entire ad to his commitment. “I’m proud of Texas schools,” he says to the camera as he wanders through a classroom. “Since I became governor education funding has increased $9 billion.” He beams and stops next to a teacher. “Education is our future and my highest priority.”
This year, Perry helped cut that “highest priority” by an unprecedented $4 billion. Facing a $23 billion shortfall for over the next two years, the governor was adamant that the state budget get balanced through cuts. He pressured the Legislature against tapping Texas’ Rainy Day fund—around $9 billion the state saved up—to help soften the blows to services. When the House Appropriations chair offered his first draft of the budget, school districts were shocked at the proposed $10 billion cut. 100,000 public school employees could face layoffs warned one education expert.
Perry wasn’t concerned. He sent representatives from his office to encourage the House’s austere budget. He shrugged off the worries about mass firings and school closure. ”The lieutenant governor, the speaker, their colleagues aren’t going to hire or fire one teacher, as best I can tell,” Perry told reporters. “That is a local decision that will be made at the local districts.” A local decision based on the state’s decision to underfund schools.
School districts across the state opened this week $4 billion underfunded. (The extra funding came thanks to a push from concerned senators.) The cuts are still unprecedented. It’s the first time since 1949, when Texas implemented its modern school finance system, that the state has decreased funding for education.
To cope, some districts are implementing fees for riding the bus or attending pre-k. Many are considering tax increases. At middle schools and high schools, many classrooms are more crowded. None of this is good news to parents.
Yet almost no one in the Republican field seems eager to criticize the cuts or Perry’s support for them.
In a Tea-Party-dominated GOP it’s unlikely that anyone’s going to earn points talking about the need for more spending and more programs. But in the past, education has always held a special status. Despite concerns about government spending and entitlement programs, free and quality education is rarely considered welfare or a hand-out—most have approached it as a right.
Additionally, the education cuts have serious job implications. Perry has cast himself as the “jobs candidate.” He points to incredible growth in Texas. But generally left unsaid is almost half of the job growth in the last two years came from education, health care and government sectors. With unprecedented cuts across the board, don’t expect to see that continue.
Furthermore, Texas already has a serious dropout problem and leads the country in residents over 25 without a high school diploma. Many of the cutbacks come to programs specficially geared to at-risk students, like initiatives to help test performance and mentoring programs. This isn’t a great recipe for employers looking for highly skilled workers. Texas already leads the country in minimum wage jobs.
It’s hard to imagine Perry’s support for such cuts won’t be a campaign issue, but of course it all depends on whether someone will actually raise the point.
In the meantime, I’m hoping the teacher in Perry’s 2006 ad still has a job.
When people heard that Rick Perry’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign wouldn’t have yard signs, political wonks considered it a form of heresy. Supporters could buy yard signs for $7.99, just like they could buy buttons ($2.89) and bumper stickers ($1.99). But the campaign hardly cared if supporters chose to give a a few dollars to show some support.
Instead, from beginning to end, the entire race focused on turnout. Rather than making phone calls and wearing Perry t-shirts, would-be supporters were asked to do something very, very specific: turn out 12 Perry votes from their friends and family.
Only two years before, Barack Obama’s campaign revolutionized politics, using its website and social media sites like Facebook to gain support and promote fundraising. Instead of making very specific requests, Obama’s site allowed supporters to set their own fundraising goals. The campaigns pushed supporters to help with get-out-the-vote efforts and offered a multitude of ways that people could do so. Compared to Obama’s a la carte options, Perry’s campaign was prix-fixe.
Both strategies were ultimately successful, destroying a lot of the common wisdom around campaigns. But while Obama’s techniques have a lot of copy-cats, few people seem to have noticed Perry’s playbook. It’s especially odd because Perry’s strategy may have some particular advantages in presidential primaries.
Back in 2010, Perry was in the toughest race of his career, running in a primary against the wildly popular and well-funded U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Politicos had assumed Perry could only win if turn-out was low; if more people came to the polls, it would mean more moderates were coming to the polls—presumably to vote against the more extreme candidate, Rick Perry.
But his chief strategist, Dave Carney, had already hatched an innovative plan based around bringing more voters to the polls not less.
Heading into Perry’s 2006 reelection campaign, Carney picked up a book to read on a plane—Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout. When he finished reading he promptly ordered copies for everyone he worked with. Then he called one of the authors, Yale political scientist Donald Green. Like many others who read the book, Carney was shocked by its findings: That old-fashioned, door-to-door campaigning is the most efficient way to turn out voters. Volunteer phone calls are pretty good too. But television ads, mailers and robocalls—the mainstays of modern campaigns and moneymakers for political consultants—have virtually no impact on voter turnout.
Carney invited the two authors, along with a couple other professors, to run experiments on Perry’s 2006 re-election campaign. When they returned with the same findings, Carney and the Perry team decided that in 2010, they would try something totally new. All the usual political tools were ignored; the campaign ran few television ads, had virtually no phone banks and barely sent out mailers to supporters. Instead, Perry’s website asked supporters to sign up as “Home Headquarters.” Those who signed up agreed to identify 12 Perry supporters and get them out to early voting. To add incentive, the campaign offered door prizes like lunch with former quarterback Troy Aikman or tacos with country music star Pat Green. (You can still see the old page at Perry’s current website.) Through reaching out online, the campaign continued to build supporters, and then quickly got them recruiting others. The website functioned as its own headquarters of sorts, offering tips on reaching out and giving luddites lessons in using Facebook and Twitter. Unlike the Obama campaign’s famous website, the Perry campaign focused not on fundraising but getting people to turn out to vote.
The entire effort was a resounding success. Almost 1.5 million voted in the Republican primary, more than had voted in 2008 when GOP presidential nominees were still battling it out. The unprecedented turnout carried Perry to a decisive victory over Hutchison.
The plan is easily scalable—after all, Texas is a big state with both rural, urban and suburban communities. Furthermore, it does not require each town have its own campaign headquarters or official organizers. Instead, community leaders can take a role, working somewhat independently to determine the best ways to appeal to their social network. It also takes some of the burden off the candidate and the campaign; instead of getting introduced the Rick Perry through an ad, you can learn about him through Mrs. Johnson down the street.
In small towns in Iowa and New Hampshire, where local political leaders have outsized influence, the strategy would seem to work particularly well. Win over some big-wigs and they’ll start turning out their friends. Who in turn, will turn out their friends. And perhaps most appealing, the plan makes a very specific request—deliver 12 votes—which means that everyone signs up knows exactly what they’ve committed to.
It’s too early to tell if Perry will use the same strategy in the national election. His website is currently pretty bare—it doesn’t even have an issues section. But if he does choose to revive the plan, we’ll get to see the pros and cons of his plan compared to Obama’s. That’s because Mitt Romney is shamelessly borrowing Barack Obama’s web strategy.
Obama had the unfortunately named social network “myBO”; Romney has the even worse-sounding “myMitt”. Just like “myBO”, supporters create an account that functions much like a social media site. They can set fundraising goals and show the different ways they were supporting the candidate. They can even link their campaign work with sites like Facebook and Twitter and even AOL (for those 12 people who never made the switch.)
Romney’s site does have a few kinks, however. Click the button for “Action” and you come to a page with four options: fundraise, gear up, donate and volunteer. Unfortunately, not a single one of these options has a link. You may want to volunteer but there’s no clear way to do it. MyMitt doesn’t really have a lot of instructions or explanations. Plus, you have to set your own goals.
Undoubtedly both strategies have some drawbacks—while Perry’s 2010 plan was very straight forward, there was little emphasis on fundraising. (In Texas, there’s no cap on campaign contributions, so he could rely on a few mega-rich donors.) Obama’s 2008 approach garnered unprecedented sums, particularly from small donors. But giving supporters specific tasks and goals, a la Home Headquarters, offers particular advantages. Using the web to orchestrate more local, in-person networks may especially suit places like Iowa and New Hampshire.
There’s also a chance that some campaigns choose to combine some of Perry’s 2010 strategies with Obama’s plan from 2008. There are some indications that campaigns are far less wedded to political dogma. These days a Mitt Romney yard sign goes for $15—coincidentally the same price as Barack Obama’s.