Newsweek’s Bill White Waltz

Big news, people. The suspense is over: Bill White is going to be the next governor of Texas! Yes sirree: Rick, Kay Bay and Farouk might as well hang it up now and save themselves the bother. Just two weeks after the Houston mayor officially announced that he’d answer Texas Democrats’ desperate prayers by running for governor, Newsweek‘s anonymous sages prophesied his ultimate victory in the magazine’s “Political Predictions for 2010.”  I will not engage in any snarky speculation here about the sagging newsweekly’s motivations for making a boldly counterintuitive call that is sure to start a buzz and make headlines across the nation’s second-largest state. A sputtering magazine that recently featured Sarah Palin in tights on its cover is clearly interested in nothing but solid, factual reportage. The fact that Newsweek’s end-of-year predict-a-thon includes a highly diverting list of the “Ten Worst Predictions” of the decade (“The I-Pod Will Flop,” “Kristol: Hillary will beat Obama”) also shouldn’t deter Texas Dems from seeing this as a great excuse to clink their holiday glasses with renewed vigor. Silly as it may be, the magazine’s Jeanne Dixon act will give a boost to White’s national credibility. The notion that a Democrat actually could win the highest office in this bassackward state will surely translate into more money for White’s campaign coffers. White can expect national Democrats’ cash to flow even more freely if Newsweek’s Ouija board proves accurate in predicting that Rick Perry will be his opponent next November. What could be sweeter for non-Texas progressives than seeing the second coming of George W. Bush get his comeuppance at the hands of a highly capable, moderately liberal policy wonk? But Newsweek‘s scenario for White’s victory is a tad bit screwy. Perry will emerge from the primary with deep scratch marks, the magazine prognosticates, clearing the way for “well-liked Houston Mayor Bill White, whose energy and planning initiatives, along with his economic management, have won him broad favor. By building a coalition of Hispanics, independents, and moderate Republicans from Texas’s growing, more Democrat-friendly urban centers, White will waltz into the governor’s mansion. But just barely.” Let’s leave aside the idea that White, who’s already being cast by the Texas GOP as a wild-eyed socialist somewhere to the left of Al Franken, can depend on winning sizable numbers of moderate Republican votes. The bigger flaw in this prophecy is the idea that White’s record of “economic management” will be a boon for him. White is leaving behind a $130 million budget deficit for Mayor-elect Annise Parker to deal with. White’s Republican opponent, whomever it turns out to be, will almost certainly make $130 million a figure that every Texan knows by heart. (Note: This $130 million figure is incorrect. See correction below.) The fact that the deficit does really indicate that White was a poor fiscal manager won’t much matter. This man left Houston swimming in red ink, the attack ads will proclaim (and proclaim, and proclaim, and proclaim). I’m not trying to poop on anybody’s parade. God knows Texas Democrats are overdue for a burst of joy, even if it’s premature. And there’s no question that White, a proven fundraiser and an extraordinarily bright political animal, does give Democrats a realistic chance to break through next year. But I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. And in their heart of hearts, neither would most Texas Dems. Their “dream team” of 2002 is far too fresh and bitter a memory for that. The state has changed since then, yes. But has it changed enough? That’s the question that nobody, even Newsweek, can answer until next November. And besides: How, exactly, does one “waltz” into office—”just barely”?

CORRECTION Houston does not have a $130 million budget deficit. The total revenue shortfall in the city is currently estimated at $3 million. White has made cutbacks and renegotiated contracts that he expects will realize savings that will more than cover that projected shortfall. White also leaves a $172 million surplus that can be used to close budget gaps. The Observer regrets the error. We received this message from Bill White: “There is no budget deficit. We have not and cannot borrow money to pay operating expenses. We do use cash balances that tripled in my administration. This use of cash balances was planned. We have cut tens of millions from our budget this year and we can cut more through improved efficiency. We have done this continually for six years.”