AS THE YEAR of grace 2013 seeped slowly into our consciousness, a Texas officeholder bought website ad space in New York City and Albany. He proceeded without apology or introduction to throw sand in the eyes of New York’s well-regulated citizenry, with all their closely supervised viewpoints on public questions. One ad said, provocatively, “WANTED: Law abiding New York gun owners seeking lower taxes and greater opportunities.”
Wanted for what? That was the outrageous part. Wanted for Texas citizenship was the answer, as explained on a linked Facebook page noting the advantages of life in Texas—lower taxes, more freedom, better opportunity and jobs, minimal gun control—as compared with, say, the joys of life in a place that defines enlightenment as an encounter in the New York Times with Maureen Dowd and Gail Collins. (The latter, by the way, is author of a book that attempts a take-down of the Lone Star State due to its malign effects on America as a whole.)
The Texas officeholder responsible for these assaults on northeastern propriety was Greg Abbott, the attorney general of Texas: the man likeliest, as of now, to succeed Rick Perry as governor in 2015. To succeed him and get on with….
Wait a minute. What about Wendy Davis, the Democratic state senator who had the collective ear of the nation back in June, with her 11-hour filibuster against a Rick Perry-backed anti-abortion bill described by most opponents as radical and anti-woman? Isn’t Wendy the next Ann Richards—caustic, big-haired, and, most of all, liberal in a state commonly described as languishing in the grip of gap-toothed good ol’ boys? Congratulations to Wendy poured in from everywhere following her feat; the hashtag #standwithwendy appeared in some 400,000 tweets. Even the president of the United States took notice, tweeting the slightly hedged observation that “Something special is happening in Austin tonight.” Oh, and then the money commenced to pour in—$933,000 in contributions between June 17 and June 30. Davis for governor! When her adversary Perry not long afterwards revealed his (predictable and well-received) decision not to run for a fifth term, the pro-Davis clamor mounted. The nation’s largest red state might just be ready for a new paint job: something in the azure or cobalt line, very possibly.
True, when it comes to actual results, the Davis filibuster was a wash-out. Sen. Davis did indeed talk the bill to death in the waning hours of the legislative session, but hardly had she caught her breath before Perry reconvened the GOP-controlled legislature, which this time passed the bill without notable trouble. Perry duly signed it. Texas now bans abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and requires abortion centers to maintain the same standards required of hospital-style surgical centers. Opponents who warned that the federal courts might, to put it mildly, object to such a law may be right. At the very least, Texas put itself on record as aligned more closely than ever before with the rights of the unborn. In politics, symbolism goes a long way—as it did, notably, in the dreams of those who see Texas painted blue with a brush wielded by Wendy Davis.
“Texans are wondering,” writes Gail Collins, “if this could be a new era for a state that really hasn’t been in the national eye for ages—unless you count” (as Collins does) “the Rick Perry ‘oops’ moment.” Wendy Davis as Joanie of Arc, cutting her way through the massed ranks of gun-toting, abortion-denying Texans: what a prospect—or, at least, for ten seconds anyway, pending the sudden arrival of Reality on a political scene given over to fantasies having to do with the innate yearning of Texans—particularly new and Hispanic Texans—for deliverance from Republican bondage.
The Wendy Davis thing—I don’t know what else to call it—signals, as much as anything else, the capacity of liberals to overestimate their leverage at a moment when liberal leverage not just in Texas but elsewhere may be waning. Still, it does give liberals something to talk about besides prospects for the rout and ruination of Obamacare.
BUT TO RETURN where I began: Greg Abbott has a war chest some 20 times larger than Davis’ and ample conservative credentials—including a consistent pro-life record—and thus enjoys considerable advantages in the race to take Perry’s place. Wheelchair-bound since a tree toppled over on him, costing him use of his legs, Abbott commands respect for a resilience that took him first to a chair on the Texas Supreme Court, and thence to the state attorney generalship. Come to think of it, Wendy Davis commands respect for rising above a trailer-park upbringing and single motherhood in order to graduate from Harvard Law School. A race between the two of them might elicit unwontedly useful information on character development in the face of adversity.
That is, if Abbott—and the assumption is in his favor at the moment—defeats the only other Republican candidate presently in the race, Tom Pauken, ex-Army intelligence officer, one-time Reagan administration official, and former Texas Republican Party chairman; a conservative idealist if ever there was one, overflowing with veneration for the lost norms of conservative governance. The fetching feature of the Abbott-Pauken contest, I am bound to predict, will be the relative intelligence of the conversation between the two Republican veterans, neither of whom is a dummy or a poseur. We should look forward to it.
I need to mention at this juncture the soft spot in my heart for Rick Perry, whose West Texas common sense took a pounding from the media and the tweeters for the “oops” moment reprobated by Collins: his well-remembered failure, that is, during a Republican presidential debate, to recall the names of all three of the federal departments he had made up his mind to abolish. (Some speculated that Perry was under the influence of painkillers at the time due to spinal surgery the previous summer.) He’s a smarter man than critics make him out to be. All the same, it’s time for Rick to do something different, like run for president a second time. Abbott, Pauken, and even Davis—let’s face it—offer the prospect of new, possibly invigorating ways to talk about how our biggest unfrozen state can assist in reviving a country in sore need of smelling salts and a gulp of brandy.
WHAT’S THE MATTER with Texas (to adapt William Allen White)? Well, whose Texas? Wendy Davis’? Rick Perry’s? A bit more than Perry might care to acknowledge in public. Less—a whole bunch less—than Davis, Collins, and fellow revved-up Democrats around the country appear to believe.
Texas is a complex place—huge, sprawling, diverse, home to constituencies and ethnicities of all sorts and descriptions, from Czechs to Vietnamese. The Davis take on Texas, the one presently making the senator a national star, is that religious nuts and cowboys run the place to their own, if nobody else’s, satisfaction. Should Davis seek the governorship—or, likelier, some more easily attainable office such as a congressional seat—she would do well to remember there might be a reason no Democrat has won statewide office since 1994. Once solidly Democratic, Texas voters flipped to the GOP starting in 1961, when, out of growing distaste for the policies and personalities of national Democrats, they elected Prof. John G. Tower to Lyndon Johnson’s former Senate seat. (The state’s Democrats, with LBJ the towering exception, tended to stay at a discreet distance from what we know of now as the BosWash, or Beltway, fringe element.) What was the problem with the Democrats? Liberalism, purely and simply. Big-government-ism. The desire for the constriction and manipulation of rights that man—in the old sense of the word that encompasses members of both sexes—enjoys flexing in accordance with his own crotchets and yearnings. The Texas frontier, a lot of it fairly frontier-y well into the mid-20th century, encouraged self-reliance and enterprise. Neither trait has exactly gone out of fashion.
Last winter Greg Abbott lanced the dignity of the New York liberal grandees with jibes about the success of Texas and the inadequacies of a debilitated Empire State. He exhibited a, if not the, major obstacle to creation of a blue Texas. To wit, Red Texas works: literally works. According to Forbes, the fastest-growing city in America is Austin, whose economy is forecast to increase by an average 6.1 percent a year from 2011 to 2016. The state’s population is predicted to hit 35.8 million by 2040, up 150 percent from 1980. Technology has led the state’s growth for 30 years; now, once again, there’s oil and gas to reckon with, thanks to fracking, the scourge of the northeast, and to Gulf Coast refineries receiving oceans of petroleum from the western U.S.
In the state’s explosive growth I find both good and bad elements. A few decades ago, Austin was a quiet, modest city (population 200,000 in the 1960 census) with but two protrusions on its skyline: the Capitol dome and the University of Texas tower. The surrounding hills afforded languid touches of green and brown. Ain’t that way no more, boys! Downtown’s a pincushion of high rises and skyscrapers, while Interstate 35 has become a river of trucks and autos headed for San Antonio or Mexico. As for tourists and conventioneers and lobbyists! And New Yorkers—who by the way are pouring in, lured either by Greg Abbott or by their own sense of where the future lies!
The Good Lord, in whom at least a moderate majority of Texans still put their trust, did not shape the Lone Star State as a living, thriving reproach to New York, but he seems to have put into a lot of local minds a devotion to the values that make for living, thriving communities. Foremost among these, perhaps: a liking for small government, a distaste for unnecessary regulation, a suspicion of taxes. As it happens, these features of life encourage business and investment, unlike their opposites, as experienced in places like New York. Thus people in places like New York, more receptive to encouragement from people like Abbott than from the likes of Collins, are wont to look fondly on the prospect of chucking the northeast and coming to Texas. Do we want them here? Want ’em or not—and of course there’s no way, never has been, of weeding the spurious from the genuine seekers—they’re coming.
The challenge for Wendy Davis, I would imagine, is to find a way to show that Texas is a good place to do business, not just to get a quick abortion. The men and women of the media, bless their pointed heads, are quick to anoint political comers they see as exciting; they are considerably less quick to identify the issues and policies likely to excite voters. For the life of me, I can’t figure out what package Wendy Davis would propose selling, with contents so dazzling voters would rush to help her turn Texas deep blue.
I think she’d feature education in her platform. What with an upwardly mobile population, some of it ill-schooled in basic English and suffering the same dysfunctions that plague American culture as a whole—divorce, illegitimacy, single parenthood—Texas doesn’t operate a great public school system (though many districts within that system, for instance Highland Park ISD, are crackerjack). What would Wendy Davis do? That’s the question. Protect the teacher unions? Liberal Democrats expect that kind of behavior. Promise to block school choice? She would have to, I figure. Raise taxes so as to spend more on schools? As Rick Perry might say: Oops! Texas has no state personal income tax—a significant advantage to the state’s business climate—and not even liberals (though you never can tell about liberals) seem minded to shove one through. At such a point, the Davis campaign is back to abortion and “reproductive freedom.” Gay marriage? The state constitution forbids it. What then? Abortion and more abortion?
Complacent Democrats, lying in wait with their brushes and blue paint cans, figure in the end that Republicans Abbott and Pauken will eventually be undone by demographics. Whites are outnumbered already by blacks and Hispanics combined. A few years more, and Hispanics will outnumber everybody. And outvote everybody? To what end? That would seem to be the central question, the one whose answer will, above all else, determine Texas’ political future. What if it turns out that Hispanics are just like, or approximately like, others in their desire for good and plentiful jobs? Automatic equation of the Hispanic vote with the Democratic party strikes me as overreach. Immigration policy can fuzz up the picture, but so-called “Anglos” and Hispanics in Texas get along fairly well when they try, which isn’t all the time but anyway is better than never.
Big times, these, in the big state of Texas, the state Collins, in her book As Texas Goes, accuses of “hijacking” the American agenda. “Right now,” writes Collins, “Texas seems to need a leader who’s ready to draw the line and dare the people to step over.” Could this be Wendy Davis? Stranger things have happened in our strange times, but with all due respects, ma’am…
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