If anybody ought to know just how cussedly anti-government Texans tend to be, it’s Bill White. Back in the mid-’90s, the former Clinton energy official and future Houston mayor chaired the Texas Democratic Party during its free-fall from monolith to doormat. When White took the helm in 1995, the Democrats were flat on the canvas—woozy from Bush and Rove’s roundhouse curve in ’94, but conceivably poised for a comeback. The Republicans, back then, looked giddily ascendant but also perilously divided between their Barbara Bush/Big Oil wing and the Bible-beating anti-taxers who’d seized the party’s grassroots.
As the Democrats’ chief flack heading into the 1998 statewide match-up, White believed—or made a fine show of believing—that his party could still woo the Barbara Bushies. Texas moderates, he said and said and said again, would come back to the Democrats “once they understand the mainstream Republican Party has been hijacked by extremists.” Better public education, decent health care, fair taxation, reasonable insurance rates—those kinds of issues, White insisted, would surely cut the Democrats’ way.
Perhaps only Karl Rove could have prophesied how wrong White was. The whipping they took in 1998 sent Texas Democrats sailing straight over the ropes and out of the ring, head-over-tail into political purgatory. The “extremists” won everything in sight, starting a run of three consecutive elections (and counting) in which the once-dominant Dems would lose every single statewide contest.
Twelve years later, White’s back for more, stepping up to challenge the undisputed heavyweight champion of Republican extremists, Gov. Rick Perry. White’s message, when he announced his candidacy in November, sounded a whole lot like a spiffed-up version of his wishful patter back in the ’90s. Referring to Perry’s flirtation with secessionism during his star turn at the Tea Parties, White posed this question: “Shouldn’t we be the state that leads the nation, not leaves the nation?”
White will spend much of 2010 flinging the “S” word (for secessionist) at Perry. The governor and his consultant-thugs will counter with a steady barrage of the “L” word (for liberal, in case you didn’t know). But the portion of the alphabet that will almost surely decide the issue—assuming that Perry and White win their primaries as expected in March—will be “G,” for government. White vs. Perry shapes up as the purest test in ages of whether Texas voters can stomach the idea of functional governance.
White’s three triumphant terms at the helm of the state’s biggest city have left no room for doubt that he can run things well. But to win statewide, he has to find a way to sell folks on the wildly radical notion that a competent human being should be in charge of the world’s 15th-largest economy. He’ll have to make his case for competence in a state where gummint-bashing is a sport that rivals football in popularity. And he has to make the sale at a tricky historical moment when even moderate voters tend to process any message that sounds vaguely pro-goverment as an Obama-style ruse for running up big deficits, tossing tax dollars at Wall Street like confetti, and turning America into a socialist state.
If he were matched up against a mainstream conservative—Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, say—White’s odds of beating back the anti-government tide in this anti-government state would be next to nil. But his ace in the hole is Perry, who spent 2009 morphing into a scarily convincing hybrid of Sarah Palin and George Wallace.
With 12 years of urbanization and Latinization having altered the state’s political landscape since 1998, Perry’s act just might—emphasis on might—have outlived its heyday. It’s no coincidence that White only decided to climb into the gubernatorial ring after it began to look like a near-certainty that the governor would pummel Hutchison in the GOP primary. Against a mainstream conservative like Hutchison, any Democrat’s chances would fall somewhere between nonexistent and zilch.
But White is a canny fellow. And whatever his deficits as a retail politician—wonky, boring, big-eared, bald—he offers the sharpest possible contrast with the charismatic whack job in the governor’s office. If enough Texans have wearied of Perry’s neo-Confederate song-and-dance, and if they’re finally ready to elect a certifiably competent governor, the politics of this state just might look—and be—drastically different a year from now.
But those, gentle reader, are some truly Texas-sized “ifs.”