Time Warp

Texas Democrats practice the politics of 1992


Twenty years ago, national Democrats were every bit as beaten and bedraggled as Texas Democrats today. Here was a party that hadn’t been able to take long-term advantage of Watergate, for heaven sakes. A party that couldn’t fend off a B actor leading a fraudulent “conservative revolution.” A party that in 1988 couldn’t even manage to beat George H.W. Bush, who stood for nothing and couldn’t articulate it. Here, in other words, was a desperate band of losers with two starkly different options going forward—the very same options that Texas Democrats now have, as they struggle to make the Lone Star a two-party state.

Option A: Think bigger. Follow the right wing’s winning example, beginning with Barry Goldwater’s insurgency in 1964, and build a fresh movement of uncompromising, left-wing populism. Jesse Jackson’s 1988 campaign, when he darn near “stole” the Democratic nomination, had offered a roadmap, showing the potential to create a new progressive coalition fueled by formerly disenfranchised non-voters.

Of course, that was gob-smackingly scary stuff for the rich white people who ran (and still run) both political parties. Which led to Option B: Think smaller. Embrace the notion that the country had “gone conservative” in some irreversible and indelible way, and remake the Democratic Party as a slightly kinder, slightly smarter version of Reagan’s GOP.

You know how that debate ended: Led by a certain magnetic snake-oil salesman from Arkansas, the national Dems seized on the Republican Lite option and ran with it. Bill Clinton got elected after strategically dissing both the Rev. Jackson and the rap artist Sister Souljah, while pledging to slash government jobs, “reform” welfare and further dismantle the New Deal. Add a dash of Ross Perot, sprinkle in a hilariously inept Bush re-election effort, and voila: The Democrats were back, and—ding dong!—the People’s Party was dead.

Something else died with it: any lingering sense of little-d democratic possibility in American politics. Campaigns became pander-fests aimed solely at a tiny sliver of well-off, white “swing voters.” And with so little left to distinguish the two parties’ messages, fear-mongering and character assassination became the only ground to fight on. And it didn’t even work for Democrats, unless their Lite Republican candidate had Clintonian charisma: The more Democrats mimicked Republicans, the more ground they lost. The reason was plain to see: Why would people vote for someone who’s pretending to be a Republican, when they could simply vote for the real thing?

It was a good question—and one raised, again, by Democrat Bill White’s thus-far dispiriting challenge to Gov. Rick Perry. Two years ago, Barack Obama showed that Democrats could capture “red states” like North Carolina and Indiana by largely eschewing Lite Republicanism and mobilizing just the kind of coalition of the disenfranchised that Jackson had once inspired.

No state in the Union has more non-voters than Texas. And when Bill White became the Democrats’ nominee for governor this year, it seemed entirely possible that the party would travel the path that led to breakthroughs in other Republican-leaning states. The former Houston mayor is, of course, famously careful, congenitally moderate and fiscally prudent. But he’s also famous for his act of political bravery in the summer of 2005, when he invited tens of thousands of Hurricane Katrina refugees to relocate to his city. This was Lite Republican heresy: What, after all, were well-off white people (aka “the voters”) going to think about these huddled masses of colored folk swelling the population of their city? But White did not flinch. He showed rare guts. Maybe his campaign for governor would be equally gutsy, equally attuned to doing the right thing rather than the conventionally wise—and morally and strategically mistaken—thing?

No such luck, at least not yet. White’s campaign has followed the disastrous Republican Lite formula to a T. It’s about “fiscal conservatism,” running the state “like a business,” talking tough about “border security,” and appealing to that same old tiny, mythical sliver of Republican-leaning “persuadables” who were registered Democrats in 1978. Which does nothing for Texas. Nothing for the people who need a strong, smart and active state government. Nothing for the Texas Democrats’ future. And nothing for White’s chances of winning.

Republicans like Perry are Jedi Grand Masters in the art of small-ball, attack-dog politics. Democrats, at their winning best, counter with vision, with hope—hope not for something marginally better, but for something substantially greater. And hope does not come in small, neat, poll-tested packages. But so far, sadly, the White campaign does.