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Obamaphobia: What’s Bill White Afraid Of?

The upcoming presidential visit has the Democratic candidate sounding like a Republican.
by Published on

A big part of Bill White’s appeal stems from his reputation—well-deserved, in many ways—for being a politician of above-average integrity and intellect. He’s the kind of guy who risks a political backlash by opening his city to the huddled masses from New Orleans after Katrina. He’s the thoughtful sort who not only weighs his policies judiciously, but also parses his words carefully. He’s the brightest and most vivid possible contrast, in other words, to the all-bling-and-no-bang governor he’s trying to unseat.

So what in the name of Rush Limbaugh was White thinking last week, when he reacted to Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to Texas by taking a page straight out of Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin’s playbook?

The Mayor from 9/11 and the Thrilla from Wasilla, you may remember, rocked the rafters at the ’08 Republican Convention with their snide digs at Obama’s community organizing. Giuliani, after praising John McCain’s experience as a POW in Vietnam, contrasted it with Obama’s own youthful efforts on the streets of Chicago, pausing and smirking as the words “community organizer” left his lips—then repeating the phrase, to the delight of the wingnuts, who enthusiastically agreed that trying to help downtrodden folks was the most ridiculous and downright unpatriotic thing a person could do. Palin, of course, followed up with her own famously snarky remark as she promoted her dazzling record of public sacrifice: “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,'” she chirped, “except that you have actual responsibilities.”

That was vile and juvenile—but, then what would you expect from those two characters? Bill White has given us reason to expect considerably better. But when plans were announced for Obama to headline Democratic fundraisers in Austin and Houston on Aug. 9, White dove for cover, straight into the same slimehole.

It wasn’t enough, apparently, to simply send his regrets, saying he already had plans that day—a crucial engagement at the Johnson County Pioneers and Old Settlers Reunion, as he told the Houston Chronicle. It wasn’t enough to distance himself by praising Obama only for “staying the course” in Afghanistan—the single most atrocious thing this President has done, among his many mistakes—and criticizing him for his supposedly reckless spending, much of which economists agree helped saved the Bush economy from collapse.

Nope: White couldn’t stop there. He took it a step further. Asked about his differences with Obama by The Dallas Morning News’ Wayne Slater, White also cracked: “I was in the oil and gas business when he was a community organizer.”

Cue GOP delegates’ wild applause!

Let’s leave aside, for now, the dubiousness of the distinction White was making—I was hauling in a bundle in one of the most destructive industries in America while that loser was working for peanuts, trying to help people! Let’s also ignore, for a moment, the fact that this man of carefully chosen words was going out of his way to diss the nation’s first non-Caucasian president. Let’s dwell, instead, on what White was trying to accomplish, in terms of his political positioning, with this unbecoming Palin impersonation.

Rick Perry’s campaign is, of course, doing everything it can to make the former Houston mayor look like Obama in whiteface. “Perry will try to say, ‘Obama liberal, Obama liberal, Obama liberal’ because he knows he can’t run on his own record,” White told the Chronicle. “He will try and distract from his own record by talking about the president.”

No doubt about that. But there’s also no doubt that Bill White could sneak into the Oval Office and shoot Obama dead, and the Perry people would still be using the same tactic. They have little choice. The governor’s nine-plus years in office have not yielded a single solid accomplishment for him to campaign on. His only option is to run against Washington, pretend that the state he’s left swimming in California-sized debt is a marvel of fiscal conservatism, and try to paint his opponent as a creature of that evil Big Gummint town.

But wait, you say: Perhaps White is wise to avoid giving the Perry campaign the gift of a photo of the candidate grinning next to the Socialist Satan of the Potomac. There might be something to that—if, that is, White’s people hadn’t already given them that gift by running an ad in the Houston Defender around Juneteenth 2009, photoshopping White in between images of Martin Luther King Jr. and Obama (caption: “The Dream, The Hope, The Change”). If you haven’t seen it, you will—again and again and again, with messages approved by Rick Perry.

What this whole sad episode of Obamaphobia seems to have revealed about White, as much as anything else, is his wrong-headed notion of what it’s going to take for a Democrat to win statewide in Texas.

“It seems to me that White is using an outdated playbook on this one,” says Ari Berman, political writer for The Nation and author of the forthcoming book, Herding Donkeys, which details the rise of grassroots politics in the Democratic Party—and the struggles of old-school Democrats to squash that effort.

“Perry is going to tie him to Obama anyway, so White might as well use Obama to try to take advantage of the changing demographics of the state,” Berman adds. “It’s true that White can’t win without getting a substantial share of the swing white vote—independents, moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans—but he also can’t win without a big Hispanic and black turnout and I’m assuming the president still has some juice left with those constituencies.”

He does indeed. And the way Democrats have made breakthroughs in conservative “red” states like Texas in recent election cycles is to set aside the old “Republican Lite” strategy of Bill Clinton (and the late Sen. Lloyd Bentsen)—”I’m just like a Republican, but slightly less extreme”—and work like the dickens to expand the turnout of Latino, African-American and working-class voters who’ve been sitting home on Election Day.

That’s why formerly Republican states like North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, Indiana, Missouri and Colorado started electing Democrats again. Successful Democrats in red states have won by cutting into Republican margins in heavily conservative areas—but not primarily by swaying traditional white voters to their side, but by giving Democratic-leaning folks a reason to bother voting. The point when you’re campaigning in West Texas, or other heavily Republican areas, is to make the beleagured Democrats there see a reason to bother turning out. And in the urban areas, where Texas has some of the nation’s lowest turnout numbers among Latinos and other minority groups, you get folks organized and engaged—and not by sounding like Palin.

That’s the only way Texas Democrats, with their huge untapped reserves—non-voting Latinos and African-Americans, in particular—will ever start winning again.

Maybe Bill White does recognize that the only way he can win is to inspire a record turnout from non-Anglo Texans. Maybe he doesn’t actually imagine that being a faux Republican is his ticket to the governor’s office. But if that’s the case, he’s got a mighty funny way of showing it.