For the Love of Sam Houston

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You’d be safe in assuming that if anybody’s going to completely miss the point of the Perry-Hutchison showdown in Texas, it would be The New York Times, which typically writes about Texas with all the subtlety and deft understanding of Donald Rumsfeld sorting out the cultural nuances of Iraq. But with a few notable exceptions, Sunday’s Times Magazine features a fairly insightful look at the Perry-Hutchison by Robert Draper, author of Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush. (It’s online already here) . Draper nails Rick Perry. Early in their interview, the governor is rhapsodizing about Sam Houston—the anti-secessionist governor Perry so ridiculously invoked during his tea party rants about states’ rights—and notes that Houston might have been president in 1860 if his wife hadn’t stopped him from running. “Then we wouldn’t have had Abe Lincoln,” Draper reminds him. “Maybe Sam Houston would’ve been better,” Perry replies—and that’s where Draper captures the governor perfectly: “He sat back and munched on his popcorn, clearly pleased to have said something that might provoke incredulity somewhere.” That’s our chief-of-state. The man doesn’t give two shakes of a lamb’s tail about sounding intelligent or making sense. Making headlines, though—that is the thing. Draper’s read on Kay Bailey Hutchison is also reasonably astute—especially in regards to her limitations as a retail politician. “Compared with that of her backslapping opponent,” Draper notes, “Hutchison’s levity deficit is notable.” He quotes W.’s former FEMA director (pre-Brownie), Joe Allbaugh, asking the essential question that Hutchison seems constitutionally incapable of answering: Why is she running for governor? “I mean, is she running for better education? Prison reform? Tort reform? The military? What is it? She’s yet to articulate or crystallize it, and it’s gotten late in the game.” And when Hutchison cries, in response to Perry’s hammering her as a “Washington insider,” that “I’m a grass-roots person, and I’ve always been a grass-roots person!” the hopelessly out-of-touch delusions of the senator—the same ones that led her to believe she could win this race while staying in the Senate—come through loud and clear. But to say, as Draper does, that Hutchison’s “a poised campaigner who does not commit unforced errors” is implying too much. It might be true enough, if you’re referring only to the senator’s thoroughly canned and predictable way with stump-speaking. But what’s missing from this otherwise canny story is a cogent analysis of why Hutchison—once the state’s most popular politician—looks to be blowing a race she ought to have won handily against a governor who, as Draper notes, has never had high approval ratings. Hutchison’s campaign has consisted of almost nothing but “unforced errors” thus far. No halfway savvy politician would have given a date for resigning from the Senate (October or November, she said last May) without having made the decision—or then played out that decision in the nutty, back-and-forth way Hutchison then did for months. As Texas Monthly’s Paul Burka noted on Monday, Hutchison’s long-delayed decision to stay put in Washington through the primary election was the ultimate blunder—one with a whole cascade of consequences that could sink her remaining chances of unseating Perry. By opening the gate for Houston Mayor Bill White to switch from the Senate race and run for governor, she not only ensured that Texas Democrats would have a strong candidate against her if she beat Perry; she also “removed any incentive for Democrats and independents to vote in the Republican primary’—switch-over votes that she’ll need to overcome the affection for Perry among downhome Republicans. Hutchison’s suicidal choice to stay put also added fuel to the Perry campaign’s so-far successful painting of her as a creature of Washington. How do you tell Texans that you want to be their governor, more than anything in the world, when you’re not willing to leave Washington to come down and fight for their votes? The woman can protest all she wants about being “grassroots”—and sound downright silly every time she does it. But she’s put down roots in D.C. and shied away from fighting for the job she says she wants. While Draper and national reporters want to cast the G.O.P. primary as some kind of litmus test for the Republican Party’s future direction—all-white and Tea Partyish and shrinking, a la Perry, or slightly more “broad-based” and Chamber of Commercy, a la Hutchison—the real deal is turning out to be nothing ideological at all. It’s about a candidate with a passel of inherent advantages flat-out blowing them all. Hutchison’s year-long series of stupid strategic decisions has given both Rick Perry and Texas Democrats the shiniest, happiest Christmas presents they’ll find under the tree this year.