Sometimes Bill White makes my brain sing. Like other Texans who fancy the notion of electing a governor who actually wants to govern, I look at his laudable record as mayor of the state’s largest city and feel my left brain tingle. I hear him speak in fully formed paragraphs about his plans for the future and entertain gleeful thoughts about a sudden outbreak of rationality in the Lone Star State. The thrill of the unknown!
But then my heart sinks as I remember: We’ve read this script before, and we know how it turns out. Al Gore, anyone? John Kerry? Um, Chris Bell? Like those policy-wonkish Democrats, White often seems determined to reason people into voting for him. “I’m an advocate of reality-based politics,” he likes to say. “How ’bout accountability?” he likes to ask. “Texans are ready for somebody who’ll solve problems,” he likes to insist.
Reality. Accountability. Problem-solving prowess. There could hardly be finer qualities for a chief executive. But they make a lousy platform for a winning campaign—especially in Texas, where logic rarely decides elections. And truth be told, few human beings anywhere make rational choices at the ballot box. We all like to flatter ourselves that we’ll vote for the candidate with superior ideas and solutions. But we’re suckers for the ones who touch our hearts and guts.
The politics of pragmatism often prevail at the local level, where government has a tangible immediacy—improving garbage pick-up, reducing crime rates, unsnarling traffic. But in a political arena the size of Texas, ideals and abstractions outstrip practicalities every time. White can fundraise, campaign and debate circles around Gov. Rick Perry and he will still come up short in November if he doesn’t offer a message—no, a vision—that transcends the nuts-and-bolts of policy.
You wouldn’t know it to listen to him, most of the time, but White does have a visionary streak. It famously surfaced in the summer of 2005, when Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans. Mayor White threw open his city to more than 250,000 refugees, galvanized more than 24,000 volunteers to help them, and told groups who’d booked conventions in Houston to take their money elsewhere. Suddenly, a city known for its cold-blooded capitalism was transformed into a national symbol of compassion. As he personally welcomed victims of the storm, White kept repeating a variation of Matthew 25:35: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in.”
That’s the side of Bill White—the Methodist Sunday-school teacher side—that needs to emerge in this campaign. He’s running against a devilishly cunning politician who might not have a vision for Texas, but who sure as shootin’ conveys one. Perry’s version of “Texas values”—frontier-style individualism and up-by-your-bootstraps self-sufficiency—connects at a gut level with many Texans’ view of themselves.
White has flashed glimmers of an alternate vision that could effectively tap into Texans’ better angels. You could hear it in his victory speech on primary night when he said, “Our elected officials should be humble public servants, who use the power of the state to serve the people and not simply to perpetuate themselves in office.” You could hear it the week after the primary, when White went on Dallas’ AM gospel station, “Heaven 97,” and answered a question about how to reintegrate criminal offenders into the community thusly: “Remember the words of the scripture: ‘When I was hungry, you fed me; when I was naked, you clothed me; when I was in prison, you visited me.’ Right? It takes a lot of committed action from people to give people hope and regain a life. It’s not just a matter of a program; it’s also those of us reaching out to these offenders one-by-one and seeing that somebody’s made in the image of God.”
If he’s going to break the Democrats’ 16-year losing streak in statewide contests, White will have to go lighter on the policy prescriptions and heavier on the preachments. I’m reminded of a political scientist’s explanation of the drubbing Texas Democrats took in 2002. “The Republicans were on a crusade,” he said. “The Democrats were on a campaign.”
White won’t win without reversing that equation. He can’t beat Perry with a mere campaign. But he just might beat him with a crusade. And then, when it’s over, he can let his left brain take over again and wonk it up to his heart’s content.