DALLAS -- Just what conservatives need right now -- a family feud in our largest conservative state. "You louse!" "You heel!" "Get that thumb out of my eye!" "No -- put down that frying pan first!"
Can we hardly wait? Actually, there's no need. It's begun already. Welcome to Texas, where the incumbent Republican governor and the state's senior Republican U.S. senator are embroiled over proprietorial rights to conservative leadership.
What's the point? Ah -- I knew you'd ask. A lot of Texans, together with non-Texans, are asking, and I don't think anyone has a really good handle on the matter.
From 1,000 feet in the air, Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison don't look that dissimilar. Some shadings, some variations, yes; but so it must be when two individuals of any disposition stand side by side. If it's not politics, it's something else. Neither Perry nor Hutchison seeks expansion of federal power over health care or anything else. Neither voted for Obama. Neither is sentimental about American enemies. Both remember the Alamo and Goliad.
What's this thing about, then, the senator's bid to oust Perry, who became governor when George W. Bush resigned to seek the White House?
She sees the coming four years as her turn to be governor: that's what it appears to be about. I'm sorry, to tell the truth, that she sees it that way, because, under other circumstances, she might be an effective and efficient governor. We don't live under those circumstances. The Hutchison candidacy -- let me put it this way -- has potential to rip the Republican Party in twain and restore Texas to at least partial Democratic control. Anyway the Democrats sure hope so.
We Texans can empathize with the desire to come home to God's country from alien territory -- such as Washington, D.C. The last time one of our senators exchanged the national capital for Austin was 1956. Conservative Democrat Price Daniel beat liberal Democrat Ralph W. Yarborough for the governorship -- only to see Yarborough, the next year, win Daniel's seat in a special election. Yarborough provided a reliable vote for all manner of liberal mischief until ousted by Lloyd Bentsen in 1970.
Why Kay Bailey Hutchison craves a job far less powerful than her own is a matter for some conjecture. She's the ambitious sort for sure, having, at 66, held one political office or another much of the time since the 1970s.
I need now to clear my throat and do the full disclosure bit. I've known Kay for 40 years. I like and appreciate her. We were at the University of Texas in the early '60s, though I didn't meet her until several years later, when we occupied press seats on the floor of the Texas House. My, did those legislators love her -- always hanging hungrily, appreciatively, around the Houston TV correspondent with the drop-dead blonde good looks. We both moved later to Dallas, put down roots (she married Ray Hutchison, a bond attorney and respected GOP legislator), and joined the Episcopal parish our family attended. My wife and I even knew her brother, Frank Bailey, a co-founder and chef at our all-time favorite Dallas gastronomic emporium, The Grape.
Kay, like husband Ray, is conservative: more businesswoman than Bubba, to be sure. If you saw her in a pick-'em-up truck, you'd figure it had to be the repair shop's only loaner at the time she wheeled in. Yet as senator -- she won a special election in 1993 for Bentsen's seat, after he accepted the Treasury from Bill Clinton -- hers has been a reliable conservative vote and voice. No Olympia Snowe, no Susan Collins, is our state's senior senator. On human life and family issues she was squishier from the conservative standpoint -- a function, possibly, of generational affiliations. She was short of 30 years old when Roe v. Wade came down. I might not call her a feminist, but she has Proud Woman attributes.
WHY, THEN, THE GOVERNORSHIP? One theory has it that, years ago, she came to know state government -- certainly husband Ray did -- liked it, and wanted to direct it from the top rung of the ladder. Then a certain George W. Bush laid claim to the job. Another theory concerns Kay and Ray's adopted, and still relatively young, children. Is it that she wants to rear them here as real Texans? A Texan could applaud that sentiment while wondering -- as Perry backers do -- what interior motive could compel her to put at risk her own party's unity and near-term, possibly long-term, prospects. Is Perry so bad a governor he has to be thrown out on his ear by the senior U.S. senator?
Such a motive doesn't hold water. Perry has a certain swagger and brashness that infuriates well-manicured liberals, nor can it be doubted that he has occupied the governorship a long, long, long time. Still, the state has prospered during Perry's proudly pro-business stewardship. He has cut property taxes, held spending down (presiding over drastic recession-necessitated cuts in 2003), assiduously sided with pro-life causes, named undoubted conservatives to statewide posts, stuck up for family values, praised the states' rights amendment (No. 10) to the U.S. Constitution, befriended the Tea Party movement, and helped to foster an ambience of cordial appreciation for the entrepreneurial arts. No wonder Sarah Palin, a kindred spirit, has endorsed him for reelection.
Delectable from a spectator's perch is the almost college-boy pleasure Perry takes in twitting the feds -- an indecorous step for which Kay seems to lack motive or appetite. The governor recently cited Texas as a kind of model for the nation: "You want to send a message to Washington, D.C., that this is a blueprint to get this country out of the recession...You want an answer? It's in the state of Texas."
I'll be hornswoggled if he's not right. We are the blueprint. Low taxes (e.g., no state income tax), light regulation, support of business -- that's how you do it, Mr. President Obama. When during early Tea Party days Perry joshed that Washington busy-bodying might prompt Texas's secession from the union, humorless bloggers and pundits raced to their keyboards to View with Alarm. Of course you could (with H. L. Mencken) call Perry's sally a mere instance of "stirring up the animals." Kay seems desirous, in response, of stirring up the moderates and independents she hopes will enter the Republican primary to vote for her. She hopes for more political decorum, as well as for a big tent in which to plant and grow Republicans.
"It is in all of our best interest," she has said (a little primly, I am afraid), "that we have a Republican Party that's worthy of governing Texas and also has the message go out to Americans that the biggest state that is still reliably Republican is a state that has enlightened Republican leadership...Silly rhetoric about secession from the union being an option is not a good image for Texas, in Austin or in Texas."
Certain overtones fall on the ear: "worthy of governing," "enlightened" leadership, "silly rhetoric." One thing Kay certainly won't be, if she wins, is Perry-like. Whether that's a selling point for Texas voters is another matter.
WHOEVER WINS THE GOP PRIMARY next March 2 should by all rights become governor, not least because the Democratic field is on the paltry side: Tom Schieffer, brother of CBS anchor Bob and a onetime partner in the Texas Rangers baseball club with George W. Bush; a couple of low-profile types knocked out in the last election; and Kinky Friedman, the humorist with the cigar, the mustache, and the black cowboy hat. At a recent upscale birthday party, I stood close enough to Kinky to pinch him. He's droll and kind of fun, in addition to which polls show him leading the Democratic race. As governor of Texas, though? I think not. The Republican nominee should win. If the party doesn't split. That's the issue now -- can Rick or Kay heal the inevitable wounds? I'm not sure I would count on it.
A leading Republican strategist tells me, "The race is fraught with peril for Republicans." It's in part -- to speak crudely -- a matter of money, of which there's only so much out there. Kay and Rick are likely to spend $30 million to $40 million in trying to kill each other. Perry has mentioned $50 million.
How much does that leave for down-ballot Republicans? Not enough, perhaps, during a recession, at a time when urban Democrats in Dallas and Houston have begun keelhauling Republican candidates, helped by Texas's growing voter pool of minorities.
Kay, I think, wants to soften the tone -- dial down the noise level a bit to give the impression that neither good ol' boys nor religious right types run the show; the trouble being that without the votes of good ol' boys and religious right types, who as a bonus are solidly pro-business, there's no Republican Party in Texas.
It all seems to me part and parcel of an argument going on around the country among Republicans: can we "play to the base" and succeed, or should we tweak a few things, rethink matters of policy and emphasis and tone? Kay says, to the latter question, you bet.
"I...want to build a Republican majority," the senator says. It's an unexceptionable objective from the Republican standpoint. So what policies get the job done? She enumerates them: better education, better transportation, healthier respect for property rights, opportunities for health care. We get there...how? Not through regulation. She isn't for that. Not through higher taxes. She wouldn't go there even if she wanted to, and I don't think she does, actually. A Hutchison administration, at the end of the day, probably wouldn't do things very differently than the Perry administration has been doing them. Maybe with kinder, gentler voice -- that's all I can think of, and it isn't a lot for purposes of differentiation from the man she would unseat. Nor am I sure by any means how many brownie points that would earn her with voters.
AMONG PERRY'S CHARMS is a brashness that draws condescending shakes of the head outside the state, and even, to a certain degree, inside. I don't see vast numbers of Texans embracing Democratic calls for "civility" or whatever, particularly with the Democrats themselves showing small disposition for handshakes and hugs. From watching the White House and Congress spew rhetorical gas, emit daily whoppers about cost-free economic progress, and backtrack on commitments to overseas friends of the United States, Perry understands well enough the value of policy pushback: how it charges the adrenalin, fortifies the stomach.
I have the sense that, for now, gentility isn't the political commodity for which most Texans yearn.
A Rasmussen poll in September, putting Hutchison two percentage points ahead of Perry, showed 80 percent of Texans adverse in some degree to the Obama administration and its ways. Obamacare, climate control, government management of the auto industry (hence threats to the pickup truck), abortion, euthanasia, patriotism, the development of existing energy resources -- one needn't be a Texan to sense chill winds blowing across the land.
Can Kay, all the same, prevail? Sure. She's got a mission in mind. The mission-minded often pull off their objectives. Rick could as easily -- more easily, maybe -- win the primary and general election, propelled by brash charisma and growing local animus toward the liberal nostrums he loves to wallop.
Meanwhile a word of counsel seems due. Watching two conservatives cut each other up is likely to prove as enjoyable as a rattlesnake bite. Still less fun will be the job of puzzling out constructive answers to anguished questions about this family feud: Why? What for? Cui bono, Tex?