Antigovernment, Texas Style

Now in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else. That's the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas, and down here you're on your own.

--Joel and Ethan Coen, Blood Simple (1984)

Pressed as to why his state had been so slow to take advantage of the federally funded Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), George W. Bush replied during the second presidential debate that it wasn't his fault--it was just the way things are done in Texas. "Our CHIPs program got a late start," he explained, "because our government meets only four months out of every two years, Mr. Vice President. May come [as] a shock for somebody who's been in Washington for so long, but actually limited government can work in the second-largest state in the union."

In other words, the fact that hundreds of thousands of children had to forgo health insurance because the legislature meets so infrequently was not a sign that things had broken down in Texas, but an indication that everything was in working order. Bush had perfectly conveyed the Texas mind-set: The less government tries to do, the better. Although the Lone Star State is often said to have a weak-governor system, it has a weak legislature and a weak judiciary to boot. Because government is weak across the board, it's all but impossible to get anything done, which is why governors, conservatives no less than liberals, are rarely able to rack up a solid body of accomplishments they can point to in running for the presidency. Where Ronald Reagan could plausibly claim to have shaken up California politics in the 1970s, Bush can make no such claim about Texas 20 years later. So far, he's left the state government pretty much the way he found it--that is to say, a confused, chaotic, gridlocked sprawl.

In fact, Texas does not really have a state government--rather, it has an antigovernment. The state constitution, adopted in 1876 following the defeat of Reconstruction Governor Edmund J. Davis--the last halfway decent governor Texas had--divides the executive branch into a half-dozen different positions, five of them separately elected. Day-to-day government is in the hands of nearly 200 semi-autonomous administrative boards whose members, some 1,400 in all, serve mostly staggered six-year terms. As a result, a governor must serve three years before appointing a majority of members of what is allegedly his own branch--and even then he must do so with the consent of two-thirds of the state senate.

Once appointed, moreover, board members are almost impossible to remove, which means that the governor has little in the way of daily oversight. He has less control over the legislature than the lieutenant governor, who presides over the state senate, and doesn't even get to draft the biannual state budget, which is the joint responsibility of the lieutenant governor and the speaker of the house. Not that control over the legislature is worth terribly much--thanks to the state constitution, Texas's legislative branch not only meets part time, but is notoriously disorganized, petty, and inefficient during its short spell in session. Legislative salaries are some of the lowest in the country, ensuring both a high turnover and a generally low level of competence. In addition, the governor has no leverage over the judiciary, an immense archipelago with not one but two supreme courts (one for civil matters, the other for criminal) and more judges than all of Great Britain. Every last judge in Texas above the municipal level is elected, which means that they are as dependent as any other pol on the mostly conservative, mostly affluent Texans who vote in state and local elections. As a consequence, judicial independence is minimal, as is any opportunity on the part of the governor to use his office to shape overall judicial philosophy.

This notion of Texas as a governmental black hole runs counter to the state's reputation as a political powerhouse that, beginning with Colonel Edward M. House, the wealthy Houstonian who helped groom Woodrow Wilson for the presidency, has exported one formidable powerbroker after another to Washington. John Nance Garner, Sam Rayburn, Lyndon Johnson, John Connally, Jim Wright, and Jim Baker--these are just some of the Texas pols who made it big in the nation's capital. But for the most part, transplanted Texans like these made their reputations as canny backroom operators who were able to make do with the elements at hand but who were otherwise never terribly strong with what George Bush père calls "the vision thing." They rarely went out before the voters alone, and when they did, the results were almost always disappointing. LBJ's wheedling, bullying ways served him well on Capitol Hill, but were a disaster once he encountered the Vietnam War. Later, John Connally, the handsome, liberal Texas governor who was wounded during the assassination of John F. Kennedy, seemed ideally positioned for the great leap forward into national office. Yet because he had jumped ship from the Democrats to the GOP, was tarred by his association with Nixon, and was himself tainted by corruption charges (even though he was acquitted), voters never saw him as more than a vaguely unpleasant blur, which is why his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980 foundered so badly.

Of course, the elder George Bush might be seen as a counterexample. But he's the exception that proves the rule. After two terms in Congress in the late 1960s and an unsuccessful bid for the Senate, Bush said good-bye to Lone Star politics for good and went on to hold a variety of posts under Nixon and Ford. Never terribly convincing in cowboy boots, he struck voters as a classic New England preppie who may have done a stint in the Midland oil fields sometime in the distant past, but was otherwise a standard-issue Washington insider--which is exactly what he was. Not so George W. Although born in New Haven, he is Texan through and through, someone whose loyalty to his adopted state was only strengthened by his years at Andover, Yale, and Harvard Business School. In his case, though, loyalty to Texas means loyalty to Texas's brand of institutionalized do-nothing politics. The system he's learned rests on a negative concept of government profoundly biased in favor of the status quo.

Given such an unmanageable structure, what is a governor to do? For George W., the answer was to develop the sort of backslapping, joke-telling, frat-house style that the system seems to demand. This was Bush's forte, which is why he was able to segue so easily from general partner of the Texas Rangers in the Dallas suburb of Arlington to the governor's mansion in Austin. Rather than secluding himself in some elite skybox, he reveled in the role of First Fan during his years in Arlington, munching peanuts in an ordinary seat behind the Rangers dugout with the masses, hobnobbing with the players, courting the press, and making it a point to get to know the hot dog vendors and ticket takers on a first-name basis. One local sports columnist described Bush as "a down-to-earth guy ... [who] would come to spring training and do his running and hang around the weight room or the clubhouse and stop and chat about the team." A Latino employee named Luis Mayoral described him as a constant kidder: "He'd see me in the distance and raise his arms and say, 'A la victoria.'"

Being an owner who is not an owner but a regular guy is perfect training for a governor who is not a governor but a regular guy also. Once in office, Bush worked hard at ingratiating himself with Bob Bullock, the crusty, LBJ-like Democratic lieutenant governor. ("I'm really impressed with that young man," Bullock volunteered. "He's a fine fellow.") He also made it a point to be on a first-name basis with individual legislators. Initially, he concentrated on a series of mom-and-apple-pie initiatives--as such things are understood in Texas, that is: bills to tighten up welfare, decentralize public education, change the tort system to reduce lawsuits, and drop the age at which juveniles can be charged with a serious felony from 15 to 14. Conservative measures like these were designed to "make a lot of people happy and not a lot of people mad," as Nelson Dometrius, a political scientist at Texas Tech University, put it. Consequently, in the words of one Austin lobbyist, they went through the legislature "like a hot knife through butter."

Then came Bush's Waterloo. Midway through his first term, he actually set out to accomplish something. He drafted a complicated scheme to revamp school financing by shifting the burden from local property taxes to the state sales tax and a new series of corporate and business taxes. Despite its reformist facade, the bill was a step in the wrong direction because it would have reduced reliance on a tax that, as one liberal tax group pointed out, was still mildly progressive, while shifting it to another that was not.

Yet significant change of any political coloration was too much for lawmakers to swallow. As the bill entered the legislative meat grinder, Bush did his best to maintain his affable, good-ol'-boy pose, claiming not to care if the measure was sliced and diced and put back together in some unexpected fashion. "I understand a successful plan will have a thousand authors," he offered at one point. Yet even if he had cursed and raged, it probably wouldn't have mattered. In a system as deeply conservative as Texas's, change of that magnitude was simply impossible.

With the bill dead in the water, Bush ultimately agreed to a $1-billion cut in property taxes that allowed him to declare victory and get out. People like Bob Bullock, eager to paper over political differences, were happy to play along. Chastened, Bush went back to the conservative micromeasures that Texas's upper-middle-class voters just love--a parental-notification law for girls age 18 or younger seeking an abortion, a bill limiting the liability of gun manufacturers, a measure allowing Texans to carry concealed handguns in public, and another banning gays from becoming foster parents. When a bill came his way that aimed to strengthen patients' rights in dealing with HMOs, he vetoed it. He sought to limit the number of poor children who would be eligible for Medicaid. Simultaneously, he perfected the sort of pious political rhetoric that made even Bill Clinton's more anodyne bromides seem like political red meat: "Compassionate conservatism." "Today's challenge lies not so much outside our borders as inside our souls." "What Texans can dream, Texans can do." And so on.

Phrases like these are designed to lull voters so that they will not place demands on a system of government that finds it impossible to do much of anything but stand pat. But after six years of do-nothing politics in Austin, the problem for George W. Bush has been how to shift gears in time for the national campaign. Against the record of Clinton-Gore, Bush should be presenting himself as a force for change. But how do you do that after devoting so much of your career to defending the status quo? ¤