Beldar handicaps Perry vs. Hutchison vs. White

By Beldar

Regarding Glenn Reynolds’ item, linking a Los Angeles Times blog post, about a new Rasmussen Reports Poll suggesting that in the 2010 Texas gubernatorial race, either incumbent Rick Perry, retiring U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, or self-identified Tea Party supporter Debra Medina would defeat the likely Democratic challenger, Bill White:

It’s way, way too early to handicap the final Texas gubernatorial race with any confidence. But for now, as I see it, the two big questions are:

  • Will the Hutchison/Perry mud-slinging during the GOP primary seriously damage either of them in a way that affects the general election?

              — and —

  • Will Bill White’s success as Houston’s mayor permit him to dodge his eventual GOP opponent’s efforts to tar him as just another tax-and-spend liberal Democrat who would be a close ally to President Obama and the national Democratic Party leadership?

(I mean no offense whatsoever to Ms. Medina, and I am, in general, very sympathetic to the concerns raised in the various Tea Party protests around the country. But both Hutchison and Perry will work very hard, during the primary and, for the winner, after, to lure those voters. Perry in particular is already emphasizing his non-Washington status. I expect either of them will adequately co-opt those voters, such that a newcomer like Ms. Medina is not likely to have much more than a symbolic and incidental effect on the Texas GOP primary or the general election in November.)

Although he's unconventional in many respects, Bill White is the most viable and attractive candidate the Dems have run for any state-wide Texas office in quite some time. I know Bill reasonably well: He was the editor in chief of the Texas Law Review in 1978-1979, one year ahead of the editorial board on which I served. A few years later when I was at Baker Botts, I was heavily recruited by him and his then-law partners at Susman Godfrey. I like him and I respect him. Bill is industrious and just wicked smart — as smart as anyone I’ve ever met, period.

Had he not been term-limited, and had he wanted another term, there is no doubt at all that Bill could have been re-elected as Houston’s mayor again by another overwhelming margin. I’m not one of the local politics mavens who bird-dog every City Council meeting, and Bill’s performance as mayor generated serious critics whose opinions I also respect. But I’ve never known him to be, nor seen any credible accusation that he is, anything less than basically ethical. I think he’s used carrots more than sticks as mayor, but with no more larceny in the carrot-distribution than what's probably the necessary minimum. Compared to, say, Chicago, Houston’s local politics are still amazingly nonpartisan and usually even non-controversial; there’s a positive passion for “business as usual” here in a city of amazing opportunity, and a mayor who can preside as a reasonably good steward over that process, without screwing up too obviously, will end up looking pretty good in hindsight. Bill certainly at least met that low hurdle. But in particular, Bill ended up looking both competent and compassionate in the recent Gulf Coast hurricanes — both as the leader of an involved civic neighbor during Katrina and, even more dramatically in contrast to New Orleans’ awful leaders, as the guy on the hot seat during Ike.

White is not a natural politician by any means — he’s utterly lacking in the slick charisma that Bill Clinton sweats and breathes, and his wonky professorial streak isn’t mixed with the same arrogance that Obama exudes. He still has a boyish directness that’s quite disarming — and it’s helped him translate his lack of political slickness into a net-positive feature for his successful mayoral campaigns.

Thus, I’m one of many conservative and Republican Houstonians who happily voted for Bill for mayor twice. I wish him well in life. I’m grateful for the good he’s done. Yet I will not vote for him for any state-wide or national office — precisely because he is indeed a devoted member of the Democratic Party.

White was a cabinet undersecretary (Energy) in the Clinton Administration, and he’s now running for a place on the political ticket (Dems) that hasn’t won a contested race in a Texas state-wide election since the early 1990s. I believe he’d govern as a progressive Democrat at either a state or national level, in a way that Houston’s local politics simply wouldn’t have permitted him, or anyone, to do as mayor. And I just have no confidence that he would — or would even want to — stand up against the leaders of the national Democratic Party; I just can’t see him defying the national party line on anything important.

Perry and Hutchison both have had extremely broad support — translating to easy victories — in their past races, but I don’t think either of them has a fraction of the depth of support that Dubya had when he was in the Texas Governor’s Mansion (or the White House, for that matter). And both Perry and Hutchison have done a good job at identifying the other’s most likely Achilles heel — Hutchison claiming that Perry’s too close to lobbyists and particular business interests, Perry claiming that Hutchison has become too much a Washingtonian and one of those GOP incumbents who were fiscally irresponsible to the point of recklessness. Both positions are caricatures, but the point of caricatures is that they rely on (and simply exaggerate) definitive, if superficial, features. The problem for Hutchison is that right now, most Texans probably hate the idea of federal spending more than just about anything, and certainly more than they hate mere lobbyists.

The Perry/Hutchison brawl, while enthusiastic and probably sincere from both sides, strikes me as something akin to a brouhaha over whether the S.M.U. Pony Band unduly insulted the Fightin’ Texas Aggies or their mascot during a college football halftime performance. If you're not heavily invested in either camp, the fight's entertainment value begins to fall off pretty sharply pretty soon. If conservatives are looking for targets to demonize, there are lots better ones around than either of these two — both of whom can legitimately claim to have reliably served most of their constituents quite satisfactorily in most respects, as reflected by the fact that they've both had easy re-elections. I suspect that most Texas Republicans wish they’d both shut up and just flip a coin tomorrow to decide which one will pull out of the primary. At least, that’s pretty much the way I feel. But some of the mud will probably stick, certainly enough to cost the eventual GOP nominee a few points in the general election — and that’s damned unfortunate, but I doubt it will be determinative.

Texas wasn’t totally immune to The One’s hopey-changitudinosity in 2008 — Obama didn’t do badly at all in Harris and Dallas Counties, for example, and had enough coat-tails to help Dems win a surprising number of local offices in both. But the bloom and its fragrance, real or imagined, is decidedly off that flower now. I don’t think even Karl Rove — whom Dubya reportedly nicknamed “Turd Blossum” for his ability to make political miracles from a stinky, messy situation — could turn an Obama connection into a political plus in Texas today.

I don’t mistake White’s lack of conventional political charisma as being political naïveté, and indeed, I suspect he can be adequately ruthless. But I doubt that ultimately he will be able to overcome the label of his party and the implied associations with Obama, Pelosi, Reid, Dean, Dodd, Frank, etc. — not in a big-money campaign against either Perry or Hutchison. Even with a positive record as Houston’s mayor to capitalize on, I just don’t see him generating the image of independence and strength that he’d need to run convincingly away from Obama. And on substance, even if he runs as what Dems would consider a “Blue Dog,” with a “conservative-light” platform that pretends allegiance to fiscal discipline and entrepreneurial values, there will still be plenty of issues on which he’s compelled to keep to the Left — among them social issues like abortion and gay marriage — that are still hot-buttons for some Texas conservatives and even some independents. (And yes, there are at least some of the latter; they're the ones who put Ann Richards into the Governor's Mansion after her ill-starred GOP opponent, Clayton Williams, fed her the ammo to paint him as a sexist good-ole-boy in 1990.)

So if forced to guess today — that’s what Professor Reynolds did with his post, he’s practically forced me to blog again with this early February guess about a November election! — my best guess is that the general election will come down to a somewhat weakened Perry, who will still overcome a White who can’t quite disassociate himself adequately from Obama and the national Dems.

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