For the first couple of months after he cruised to the Democratic nomination and earned a shot at aspiring governor-for-life Rick Perry, Bill White’s campaign was approximately as thrilling as a bowl of cold gruel. His people issued a steady stream of “hits” on Perry that read more like term papers: sober, detailed and bullet-pointed, with titles like “Has Rick Perry read the searing audit of TxDOT?” (Stop the presses!!)
Meanwhile, prospective voters were being treated to a sepia-toned ad making White’s life story look like a Texas-themed episode of Little House on the Prairie. “Life on the frontier was a struggle,” White’s somber voice informed us. “My parents taught in Texas schools, and they also taught Sunday school—as I have.”
It was starting to look like a rehash of the hapless Kay Bailey Hutchison campaign, in style and substance. White was hitting Perry on the same old issues: dropout rates, TXDOT, Enterprise Fund (i.e., slush fund), fiscal mismanagment—and doing it in the same muted tones that turned Hutchison’s challenge into mush. Like Hutchison, he seemed to want to win the “right way”—by offering himself as a smarter candidate with better ideas. But that’s not what wins elections in Texas, or just about anywhere else for that matter.
“Wake me when it’s over!” one despondent Democratic strategist cried out a few weeks ago, well into his cups at an Austin watering-hole. It was a common sentiment. White was raising enough money to be competitive, but he wasn’t running the kind of spirited insurgent campaign that it would take to unseat an incumbent governor in the state’s dominant party. Even with Perry’s self-inflicted, laser-pointed wounds—and the abundant, low-hanging evidence of his misgovernance—the White campaign was starting to look doomed.
But lo and behold, as the summer started hotting up, so did White and his Democratic allies. In recent weeks, White has released a swell commercial caricaturing Perry as a cartoon cowboy. He’s harped more sharply on Perry’s refusal to commit to debates. The AFL-CIO has been effectively mocking Perry’s lavish lifestyle. White’s press releases have taken to calling the governor names—”Part-Time Perry”— and White held a pointed news conference unveiling records proving the governor hadn’t been spending much time on state business. Last week, Democratic allies shut down a Perry campaign stunt by drowning out the governor’s spokesman, Mark Miner, with loud demands for a debate and a guy in a chicken suit. And on his 56th birthday, White flashed a sense of humor with a fundraising stunt allowing folks to put some virtual hair on his bald pate.
For Democrats, this move toward attack-dog politics—leavened with humor—has offered new reasons for hope, heading into this weekend’s Democratic Convention in Corpus Christi. So have polls that show Perry consistently failing to top 50 percent—always a bad sign for incumbents. One poll even has White tied with the governor.
White’s task at the convention is clear enough: convincing the 6,000 or so Democratic activists that he has the juice to beat Perry. Some of these folks have been through too many cycles of hope-and-bust to be easily convinced. Others aren’t sure whether White, with his low-key affect, has the right stuff to bring down a political beast like Perry.
While he has to fire up the faithful, White’s larger task is to continue building a narrative around Perry’s failings. Which means taking a cue from the Perry campaign itself.
Perry’s knee-capping of Hutchison was a textbook example of what it means to not just savagely attack your opponent, but create a devastating narrative that encapsulates everything Texans wouldn’t like about her. She became the very embodiment of that great Satan known as Washington. Hutchison might have come from Texas, but she “went Washington” the day her patent-leathers hit the District of Columbia pavement. She was out of touch with “real Texas.”
Everything potentially damaging that Hutchison did, said, or didn’t do or say, was then wedged into that one central storyline. She voted for bank bailouts? She’s the queen of pork-barrel politics? Creature of Washington Incarnate!
The beauty of this was that not only did Perry’s people define Hutchison in a way that was both plausible and politically disastrous in a GOP primary—they also, by extension, defined Perry. Those terrible Washington qualities that KBH embodied? Perry was the polar opposite on every count. Perry didn’t have to run a lot of positive ads explaining himself; he explained himself by telling such a convincing and damning story about his opponent.
Beyond firing up the troops in Corpus, White’s big-picture challenge is to turn the tactic back on Perry. Like too many Democrats for too many years, his campaign message thus far has mostly been about policies: this one, that one, another one. The problem is, you can holler about Perry’s Enterprise Fund, or his management of the budget, or TCEQ, or SBOE till you’re blue in the face—and none of it will stick in a meaningful way with voters unless it feeds into a larger story of why Perry is bad for Texas.
After bringing his campaign back to life in the last few weeks, White has a chance this weekend to write his Rick Perry story in big, capital letters—and to set the tone for a campaign that will be as tough, as smart, and as relentlessly focused as his opponent’s will surely be.