Does Bill White Have a Big Idea?

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Rick Perry has picked up on an important and hard-to-argue flaw in his opponent’s campaign. For once, I’ll let Gov. Perry say it for me: “Bill White’s been running for governor now for close to a year, and he has yet to lay out one positive, substantive policy issue for this state,” Perry said on Tuesday. “We have serious issues in this country, like … how do you make sure that there’s not another oil spill in Texas, not did somebody fill out paperwork on one line of a report correctly.”

Now, let’s be real here: Gov. Perry’s not doing dipseydoodle to prevent any future oil spills. The man who called the BP spill a possible “act of God” announced on Tuesday in Houston that he was creating a “Texas version of that legendary race to the moon” with a coalition of experts studying how to prevent or lessen future oil spills. This was pure political butt-covering. The program has no funding, no price tag—just a coalition of university researchers and “experts” who already received significant funding from Big Oil. And it’s not that Perry’s coming with a whole lot of convincingly “substantive policy issues.” His ethical failings are by now well documented: The “paperwork” he was casually dismissing in that quote had to do with a bank loan for a house that he failed to report on personal financial disclosures.

But the governor did have a point in there somewhere … Oh yeah: It was the part about White not coming with any “serious issues” as yet.

It’s a little surprising, given White’s unquestionable smarts and the better-governance ideas his brain swarms with. But his campaign has yet to come up with a big, bold, marquee idea that encapsulates the “moving Texas forward” message White has to try to win with.

Democratic consultants and hardcore Bill White fans (a fierce and terrifying crew indeed!) will surely disagree. Why, they’ll say, Bill White is just full of ideas! And they’ll have a point. It’s true that White has policy ideas (you can see some of them on his website). But the ideas are not exactly exhaustively detailed. And even if they were, policy ideas are well and good, and might even be used someday. But I’m not talking about policy points; I’m talking about The Big Idea.

White won’t beat Rick Perry on superior smarts, or by being more ethical or a better CEO. He has to convey to the majority of Texans that he has The Big Idea—a way of tackling the state’s challenges, symbolized by his fresh-sounding approach to a single big issue, that can define him as the guy we need right now.

The White campaign has sharpened and tightened its game considerably in recent weeks. The candidate has been attacking Perry for his pattern of bad governance and questionable intregrity—and God knows, Perry’s nine years in office have given him abundant material. But in the context of Texas politics, hitting your opponent for ethical outrages and bad governance is a little like criticizing a pro football lineman for bulking up with artificial growth hormones: Sure, it’s wrong, but is anybody surprised by it?

White won’t be competitive, come November, unless he successfully takes the next step: Not just making reasonable people want to vote against Perry, but vote for White.

There’s time left to find The Big Idea—and to road-test a few of them to see what sticks. But White won’t win without finding one. Competence isn’t going to do the trick. Promising to run things better, more ethically—it’ll only get you so far, and besides, Perry’s people are going to slime White up so bad, that argument will sound meaningless to most voters by November. Running as a good-government reformer will not get you over the top once they’ve turned you into another Kay Bailey Hutchison (if not another Barack Obama). The stakes of the election have to be defined as something that transcends White vs. Perry: White has to stand for something larger than himself.

White can look at other successful Democrats in the South and West—Mark Warner in Virginia, Brian Schweitzer in Montana, four-term Gov. Jim Hunt in North Carolina—and see how they won in Republican times against tough conservative opposition. They all did it by sounding not like policy experts but by sounding like the future. An unthreatening future, too, one that will be fulfilled on the terms of the folks in the great state of (fill in state’s name here).

When he ran for governor (and senator), Warner did it in Virginia, convincing regular folk that he was going to work for them. He ran as The Jobs Governor, and in a time when the most heavily Republican areas of his state were desperate for jobs, hammering home that central idea was enough to win over plenty of conservative voters. In North Carolina, Hunt won four terms in the ‘80s and ‘90s by making himself The Education Governor, creating the most innovative early-education programs in the country after convincing voters that this was The Big Idea the state needed—the key to the future, and an issue that transcended ideology.

It might be education, jobs, infrastructure-building, green energy, or a combination of them. But White’s Big Idea has to come across as a big, bold, and yet-common sense vision for the future. And it has to encapsulate the essential differences between him and Perry.

White is getting better—and sharper—at defining the differences with Perry that he wants voters to see. But he hasn’t figured out how to make himself Texas’ man of the moment, and of the future. Perry’s partisans know what they’re wanting to vote for—and against. And they know Rick Perry will champion their sentiments (at least rhetorically). Independents, meanwhile, know what kind of government they’ll be getting if they opt for Perry—same old, same old. But what about White? There’s a fundamental fill-in-the-blank test for a candidate that he hasn’t quite checked off. It’s the box at the end of this sentence: I need to vote for Bill White because XXX…

If White can figure out how to fill in that blank, there will be a much better chance that we’ll have a competitive governor’s race come fall. The former Houston mayor has finally started to run like an underdog, nipping at his opponent’s heels. Now he’s also got to stand up on his hind legs and tell us why he ought to be governor.