The Elephant in the Room

Texas Republicans sport stiff upper lips at their state convention.


Dave Mann

For a few minutes at their recent state convention in Houston, Republicans actually seemed energized and unified. The brief respite from the malaise and discontent that otherwise pervaded the convention came courtesy of Mike Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor and former presidential candidate, beloved among grassroots Republicans for his charisma and fundamentalism (not necessarily in that order), received a rousing ovation even before he began his speech to delegates on the convention’s second day. The cheers only grew louder as he told the assembled faithful exactly what they were longing to hear: that America’s problems aren’t failings of economics or bureaucracy or politics, but rather failures of morality.

“We cannot have a strong economic system if we do not have people of character,” he said to another standing ovation. “The reason we have so much government is our failure to do the right thing. If we followed Jesus’ law-do unto others as you would have them do unto you-there would be no need for laws. You see, the best government is self-government.”

Huckabee then imagined a Republican utopia. “I want you to think about a hypothetical community. I’ll call it Hucktown … In Hucktown, the crime rate is zero.” So you don’t need a lot of police-get it? “There are no high school dropouts. There’s no divorce rate and no domestic abuse… There’s not a lot of government in Hucktown because you don’t need it. Taxes are very low in Hucktown.”

It was the right-wing equivalent of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” One 20-something delegate leaned toward her friend and whispered that Hucktown “sounds boring.” But most delegates roared their approval. Huckabee concluded with the take-home: “Big government is the direct result of the moral breakdown of the people.”

Texas Republican delegates may wish they lived in Hucktown, may wish that years of Republican victories had produced anything even vaguely resembling Huckabee’s utopian vision. Instead, they live in a state and a country racked by debt and recession, where 81 percent of Americans tell pollsters they think the country is “off on the wrong track.” Moreover, eight years of Republican control in Washington and a decade of dominance in Austin have produced little progress on the party’s core issues: illegal immigration, abortion, taxes, and the size and power of government.

Disgruntlement has been building among GOP activists for several election cycles. Many feel betrayed. “A lot of these people feel that [Republican] leaders say one thing to get elected, then do another once they’re in office,” said David Emery, a delegate from Fort Worth, who added that he won’t vote for Sen. John McCain in the fall. “The people in office are not governing in a conservative manner,” he said.

Compared with the Democratic state convention a week earlier, the GOP affair seemed smaller and far more subdued. The 2008 convention was in fact the smallest in recent memory. There were only 5,800 delegate slots (down from more than 7,000 two years ago); only about 4,000 delegates showed up, which means more than 1,800 didn’t bother. There were fewer alternates and guests, too. Entire sections of chairs in the main hall of Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center remained empty.

The delegates who did attend said they had never seen so much discord at a Texas Republican event. Supporters of congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul made themselves unwelcome at every turn. Upset that party leaders ignored their candidate, they continually employed parliamentary tactics to delay the convention-hurling points of order and inquiries at beleaguered party chair Tina Benkiser. As a result, it took hours to complete the convention’s most rudimentary business: adopting rules, settling nominations, electing a party chair (Benkiser easily bested a Paul supporter), and finalizing the platform. The convention’s general sessions ran two to three hours late.

Republican Convention in Houston

It wasn’t just Ron Paul delegates who were upset. Many of the party’s traditional activists were equally unhappy. Delegates reported dissatisfaction with the way elected Republican leaders have been governing. Many delegates don’t like the Trans-Texas CorridorGov. Rick Perry‘s plan for a network of toll roads around the state. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, attuned to anti-corridor sentiment among the grassroots, condemned the project in his convention speech on Thursday. “You can’t build toll roads in rural Texas,” said Dewhurst, who in 2003 pushed Trans-Texas Corridor -enabling legislation through the Texas Senate and has done little since to change course. “And, for heaven’s sake, don’t mess with Texas’ private property rights!”

(Dewhurst was booed lustily later in the speech when he proposed putting Texans’ fingerprints on drivers’ licenses. It was the first time in at least eight years that an elected Republican was booed so loudly at a state convention.)

Many delegates are still angry over Perry’s effort to mandate the HPV vaccine last year and over the expanded business tax that Perry pushed through the Legislature in 2006. The party platform passed at the convention calls for repeal of what one delegate termed “Perry’s unconstitutional business tax.” Many believe the business tax is a de facto income tax and thus violates the Texas Constitution. “Gov. Perry and the Legislature broke their promise on taxes,” said another delegate. “It’s the largest tax increase in the history of the state.” Many find it particularly galling that said tax was proposed by their own Republican governor and passed by a Republican Legislature.

Even Roger Williams, the former secretary of state who’s heading Texas Victory 2008-the Republican get-out-the-vote operation-told delegates in his speech, “We need to elect Republicans who will do in office what they say they’re going to do when they’re running for office.”

Wayne Barker from Houston said of the Republican leadership, “They’re so far from us grassroots people on the issues.” And not just on a state level. “I actually like McCain,” Barker said, “but you’ll find a lot of people here-hardcore Republicans-who look at him and feel nothing.”

In fact, few delegates sported McCain shirts or signs. Several delegates took out their frustrations by shadowboxing a cardboard cutout of the Arizona senator. The McCain campaign decided the Republican nominee would skip the convention and asked Huckabee and Mitt Romney to appear instead. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, gave the keynote address at Friday night’s GOP banquet ($75 a ticket). He told the dining delegates, “I have the honor of speaking for someone I respect tremendously-Sen. John McCain!” Only about half the delegates even bothered to applaud.

The assembled die-hards weren’t too perturbed about Barack Obama’s candidacy either. (However, a button on sale at the convention wondered, “If Obama’s president, will we still call it the White House?” After an Internet backlash, the party repudiated the button.) Judging from the crowd’s reaction, the junior senator from Illinois hasn’t yet reached infidel status among grassroots Texas Republicans. Not that Perry, Dewhurst, and others didn’t try. “If Barack Obama gets the chance to change America, we’ll only be left with change in our pockets,” Dewhurst said to polite applause. Perry trotted out a similar line. Benkiser called Obama’s agenda “socialist,” and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson referred to the Democratic nominee as Barack HUSSEIN! Obama. None of it elicited much enthusiasm. The most successful Obama applause line came from Huckabee, who said he admired Obama’s journey, and that he was glad the “racism of the past” is gone.

The convention at times seemed so low-key you had to remind yourself that Republicans are still in the midst of their golden age in Texas. They hold every statewide office and both chambers of the Legislature. Of course, some true believers are as excited about their party as ever. But given the level of disharmony and apathy at the convention, you have to wonder how much longer the GOP can maintain its current level of dominance in Texas. Democrats have a chance to retake the Texas House this year, particularly if Republican turnout is low. Some GOP activists wonder whether it’s worth working to elect Republicans if they won’t govern “like conservatives.”

The irony is that the orthodoxy some activists desire would likely be politically disastrous. Texas Republicans haven’t exactly espoused moderate rhetoric and policies in recent years. On immigration, especially, the GOP has designated itself the party for white folks in a state that soon will be majority Latino. A shift even further rightward might immolate the party in future elections.

How many delegates are willing to sacrifice election victories on the altar of ideological purity remains to be seen. With complete control of Texas, Republican activists have the luxury of dreaming of an ever-purer GOP. They can fantasize about Hucktown. But the quest for that dream may ultimately prove self-destructive.