“You having any fun yet?” a longtime Democratic consultant asked me on Friday morning as his party’s state convention was getting underway in Corpus Christi.
The man had a point. Compared to the ragged-edged Texas GOP Convention earlier this month in Dallas, when the state’s dominant party squabbled like schoolchildren over its immigration platform and state chair, the Democrats’ gathering in Corpus Christi was as trim and tidy as an exurban housing development. Which made it sheer bloody hell on controversy-seeking reporters. I mean, you figure you can at least depend on Democrats to be entertainingly disorganized and spend the weekend quibbling over small differences.
But things ran on time in Corpus; Bill White’s acceptance speech was 45 minutes early, for God’s sakes. (What kind of Democrats are these? I kept wondering.) Party chair Boyd Richie easily held off a long-shot challenge. The one real controversy, a racially tinged debate over the Dems’ bizarre—and very un-tidy—“two-step” process for selecting presidential delegates, briefly heated up on Saturday, firing up some unruly passion. But it was just a quick flash, as it turned out, with order hastily restored.
No surprise, I guess: When your party has power—i.e., when you’re Texas Republicans—the stakes are higher, and folks are going to fight things out. When you’ve been perennial losers—i.e., Texas Dems—it’s much easier to set aside your quibbles (and principles) and rally around a common goal.
And a common enemy.
Nothing brings people—even Democrats—together like a devil they can all agree to loathe. And if any of the more than 5,000 delegates didn’t realize they had one before Corpus Christi, they were reminded several hundred times over the course of two days. There was, as the awful phrase goes, considerable “message discipline” at this convention. And the message, first and foremost, was the enemy: Rick Perry.
The AFL-CIO’s green EvictRick doublewide, parked out front, served as the symbolic presiding genius of this convention. Perry’s catalog of sins was read and repeated from the podium, joked about and tut-tutted over in caucuses and committee meetings. And it served as the central theme of the convention’s peak moment: a surprisingly feisty, witty and lively acceptance speech by former Houston Mayor Bill White.
White hit all the right notes—and seemed, for maybe the first time, to enjoy doing it. He cheekily pledged to live a different lifestyle as governor—referring to “the double-wide trailer Andrea and I will live in while the mansion is rebuilt.” His unifying message was captured at the end of a catalog of Rick Perry’s excesses and failings: “Though Rick Perry is in it for Rick Perry, I will always be in it for Texas.”
White’s zippiest line was a riff on his prepared text: “Rick Perry has been governor longer than any governor of Texas but Sam Houston. Sam Houston and Rick Perry are both going to be defeated on the same issue: seccession. The difference is that Sam Houston was against it, and Rick Perry is for it.”
Texas Democrats’ statewide message has often, in recent election cycles, been hard to discern—and harder to hear, drowned out by the Republicans’ vastly superior resources and, well, message discipline.
Not this year. A sense of impending doom hangs over the Texas GOP, which can’t come to constructive terms with its slipping support among the state’s most powerful demographic of the future, Hispanic voters. Meanwhile, this convention made the Democrats’ strategy for electing Bill White—and, their second priority, regaining a majority in the state House—crystal clear: The party is banking on voters’ weariness with Perry and right-wing Republican legislators who’d rather spend time debating Voter ID than solving problems.
It’s not just wishful thinking. There’s genuine reason to believe in Perry’s vulnerability—incumbents are usually in trouble when they can’t top 50 percent in preference polls. And, increasingly, there’s reason to believe in White’s potential to exploit the governor’s historically shallow support among Texans. We knew he could raise money, and he showed in Houston that he could govern effectively and popularly. But could he turn his low-wattage personality into an effective political vehicle? In Corpus, at least, the answer was a surprisingly resounding yes.
Democrats were pleasantly surprised to see White spring to life before their eyes—and rightly so. But there are potential pitfalls to the relentless focus on Perry. One is that everything hinges on making him unpalatable to a majority of voting Texans—hardly a sure bet, given Perry’s years of practice making himself come across like the quintessential stereotype of a good ‘ol Texan. Wisely, the Dems are attacking that image at the root—highlighting Perry’s high-living ways, nicknaming him “Part-Time Perry” for his light work schedule, spotlighting the state’s looming $18 billion budget deficict. But White will also have to make the case that he’s the new-model quintessential Texan, and there’s more work to do there.
The other pitfall of the anti-Perry focus: making your message more about who you aren’t than who you are. As long as Democrats have been out of power in Texas, there’s a fundamental question in voters’ minds that they have to answer: What in God’s name might they do if they had a governor and a House majority?
White’s speech, for all its virtues, was long on Rick Perry and thin on ideas. The closest he came to a Big Idea was laying out a “five-point plan for education” that was really no more than a basic set of goals.
But the main challenge White faced at this convention was to convince the hardcore Democratic activists who made the trip to Corpus that he could actually pull this thing off. He did just that. Asking the assembled Dems to spread the word, he closed by framing the election again as a referendum on Perry: “Tell them that we face a simple choice in this next election. It’s not about Washington, it’s about putting Texas first. But it’s about something even more basic than that: It’s about the fact that Rick Perry is in it for himself.”
Democrats head into the final four months of this campaign better armed for the fight—better message, more money, better organization—than they’ve been since the early ‘90s. Their convention might have been a snooze for reporters, but that’s also a measure of its success. The Dems left Corpus with tangible reasons for hope. Considering the party’s recent track record, that’s saying something.