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Tom Schieffer’s Bush Problem(s)

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“We have no vision in this state,” Tom Schieffer said last week at a Democratic lunch in Austin. Hard to argue with that. But talking about having a vision is not the same as having one. And if Schieffer’s got one, he’s keeping it under wraps.The 61-year-old former state representative (in the ’70s) and U.S. ambassador to Australia and Japan (in the George W. Bush administration) looks like the Dem to beat in the gubernatorial primary next March. With state Sen. Kirk Watson declining to join the fray, and Houston Mayor Bill White and former state Comptroller John Sharp gunning for Kay Bailey’s U.S. Senate seat, Schieffer’s looking at a less-than-scary bunch of foes: Kinky Friedman, Mark Thompson (who lost for Railroad Commissioner in 2008) and, possibly, former Travis County D.A. Ronnie Earle. Unless White or Sharp switches races, Schieffer’s expected to sail through the Democratic primary—and straight into the headwinds of either Gov. Rick Perry or Hutchison. At least that’s the CW. But I can’t see Schieffer as a shoo-in for the nomination, no matter the opposition. It’s tough to win without a message. It’s even tougher when the rank-and-file of your own party doesn’t trust you. And it was abundantly evident in Austin that some Democrats don’t. That’s mostly because of Schieffer’s long friendship with W., his former partner with the Texas Rangers. Schieffer’s been campaigning for months, but he still hasn’t conjured a satisfactory answer to the inevitable question that reared its ugly head even during his introduction to the Central Texas Democratic Forum. “He has some connections to George W. Bush,” said Austin attorney Chuck Herring, who went on to note that Schieffer voted for W. “every time he ran.” The candidate recovered well enough from that less-than-glowing intro to give a lucid, low-key, mildly humorous talk emphasizing his Democratic roots (his mama was in Ladies for Lyndon; how could Dems doubt him?) and his dedication to nice things like improving education. Then it was back to Bush in a brief, contentious Q&A. “I think your repeated support for George Bush is literally the elephant in the room here,” one Dem said, asking if Schieffer “in retrospect” had “any regrets about it.” Schieffer pretended he didn’t understand the question, rephrasing it thusly: “The question was about George Bush asking me to serve as ambassador.” His interrogator interrupted to point out that, no, in fact, that was not the question. Schieffer snapped back: “Could I go ahead and answer and then you can ask me any follow-up you want to?”Next question: Could Schieffer name three Bush policies or actions that he would repudiate?

“I don’t want to get into the critique of the Bush administration,” he said. “There’s a lot of things I would have done differently if I had been president instead of him.” That ain’t gonna fly. Without establishing some clear, wide political distance between himself and his old pal, Schieffer can talk about his admiration for FDR and JFK and LBJ till he’s blue in the face—and many Dems will still look at him and think: “The friend of my enemy is …” If he sorts out the Bush quandary, Schieffer will still have to grapple with a dearth of what Daddy Bush famously called “the vision thing.”  Schieffer seems like a bright fellow, and the few issues he’s emphasized—improving public schools, most notably—give off a moderately progressive vibe that could serve him well. But when it comes to specifics, even on his signature issue, he’s offering weak tea. When an Austin Dem asked him where he’d find the money for educational improvements, Schieffer’s response was enough to give a political consultant the shakes: He eluded the question again, instead talking about his sister being a teacher and suggesting, as a fix, getting together some “smart people, put them at the table…” “That’s not the question,” his questioner pointed out, pressing Schieffer on the money thing. This did not end well, either. “I don’t know where we find the money,” Schieffer finally admitted. Which is enough to make a political consultant take a flying leap off a high balcony. There’s certainly time left for Schieffer to shape up. But the longer it takes him to realize that “Loyal Friend of W.” is not a campaign message designed to stir Democratic hearts—or many independent and Republican hearts, for that matter—the longer his odds will grow.