The House Democrats' walkout was their best option in light of Republicans' vicious and highly partisan day in the sun; ending The Chronicle Hour quiets the right-wing voices in our head.
Liberals, progressives, leftists, and/or middle-of-the-road supporters of the social safety net tend to be more critical of currently elected Democrats than the ideological camps that support Republicans are. Lest this seem a tainted partisan statement on my part: The reason is, after the long Democratic political dominance, those who support Democrats for their policy positions rather than out of party allegiance have been sufficiently disillusioned by the Dems' actual performance -- or lack thereof. The Republicans only lately have come to such dominant power, so their believers expect a purer achievement -- a legislative effort that rescues us from the corrupt moral relativism of Democrat-dominated big government. Smaller government, fewer taxes, and a more moral world are major expectations. Republicans are mounting just such an assault, probably the most remarkable sea change in government since Roosevelt's New Deal (which so many of them regard as the beginning of the end).
Obviously, government and politicians are complicated and compromised, with no simple explanation or definition for process and achievement. Failure, corruption, greed, special-interest manipulation, partisan maneuvering, and cynical politicking are inherent in democratic government, at best a massively sprawling, contradictory mess.
Still, the current shape of government, its services, and the social safety net evolved from a genuine, long-term, bipartisan response to social needs and a desire for a healthy, cooperative, interdependent, interconnected society. The new right's argument that modern government, in all its failures (and, according to them, almost no successes), is the conspiratorial conception of anti-American, knee-jerk Marxist liberals searching for the New World Order Utopia is a pathetically simplistic fantasy. Unfortunately, this level of analysis dominates their thinking.
The walkout: The House Democrats who walked out took the only course open to them. Those who argue that they've disgraced their offices, abandoned their responsibilities, and cravenly betrayed the legislative process offer partisan rhetoric. Rarely has the legislative process been as cynically manipulated as it has been this session. The priority is the Republican agenda -- process be damned -- played out in the offering of shell bills that are only later crammed with details, Democratic amendments that are consistently shot down, precious little consequential debate, and not even the pretense of cooperation. The last straw of the onslaught was Craddick's acceding to U.S. Rep. DeLay's demands for extensive partisan redistricting. In the face of so many troubling issues facing the state, this was too inanely imperial.
Redistricting: There is a legitimate argument for investigating the fact that, while the state votes Republican, the majority of Texas' congressional representatives are Democrats. Some of this is from Republican districts that vote for Democratic congressmen, some from past redistricting. Tackling redistricting in an off year without a court order is not only unprecedented here, but in every other state as well. Equally unprecedented in Texas is to wield redistricting as a weapon against incumbents -- whose seniority benefits all Texans. Even against the best interests of many rural Republicans, the map offered, which divides Austin into four districts and Lockhart into three, should end up in the dictionary under "gerrymandering." This move is about partisan power, not representational equity.
Bipartisanship: There are those who claim that after over a century of Democratic domination, turnabout is fair play. This is wrong: The Democrats were more inclusive. When state Rep. Pete Laney was speaker, he was the anti-Craddick, insisting that he was the speaker of a bipartisan house. My source on this would be President George W. Bush, who in running for that office championed the bipartisan performance of his administration, bragging about how Democrats and Republicans had worked together for the good of Texas. This cooperation was orchestrated by former Speaker Laney.
The governor: Anyone critical of the Oklahoma exodus should look at the governor, who, though physically in Austin, essentially has been absent this session. Rick Perry's Li'l Abner turn, aw-shucks-ing his way through sound bites with a frozen smile and massive denial, is not leadership. Anyone attacking the walkout as failed legislative process needs to explain Gov. Perry's 82 vetoes last session. In his only bipartisan action as governor, Perry alienated Republicans and Democrats alike, making clear his office was there to serve only the interests of the businesses, interests, and institutions represented by favored lobbyists.
The speaker, this session, and Texans' future: Texas faces a genuine, bone-deep budgetary crisis that wouldn't be solved even if politicians of differing views but with a commitment to cooperate had tried their best. Under Craddick's leadership, the Republicans have concentrated on the most limited, partisan agenda. It offers no compassion for Texas' underclass, coddles business, appeals to the most-extreme right on family and moral issues, and, ironically, guarantees rather than mitigates future economic problems.
Craddick has proven a speaker for his time -- which, unfortunately, is not the 21st century but the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. A vision is being achieved: We are returning to the past of smaller, one-party-dominated government. There will be "no new taxes" -- except for euphemistic "user fees." Conversely, there will be precious few state social services and supports. Yet most Texans will pay, ironically, more than if some limited new taxes had been passed. Health costs that the state and federal government share (with the feds funding as much as two-thirds) will fall solely to cities and counties. The loss of health services once provided by the state will lead to either more emergency-room visits or to the ill being left untended. Local taxes will rise. Badly reimbursed doctors will move. Insurance rates will rise. Teachers will either quit the profession or move. It will hurt the economy -- what businesses will move to a state sinking to the standards of a Third World country?
And we will pay morally in the lives and well-being of our citizens, this session's legacy haunting Texas for a long time to come. Haunting it with sickness, with death, with a growing separation in service options between the poor and the middle and upper classes. Children will be undereducated and disenfranchised; children will be diseased and crippled and will die. But there will be no new taxes. Congratulations to the smaller government, anti-tax Republicans. You're achieving your great vision. All of us, I'm afraid, are about to suffer the consequences.
Nov. 8, 2002, on 1370AM, we broadcast the first Chronicle Hour. The station, which mostly programs nationally syndicated, right-wing talk-radio shows, approached us about a 13-week trial period. We liked the idea; we'd much rather try to communicate with an audience that more often than not disagrees with us than to preach to the choir.
Twenty-five weeks later, we broadcast our last show. By then, the basic format was that the host and I (we went through three hosts) would chat about current national political issues and take calls from listeners for the first 40 minutes or so. Politics/News editors Michael King or Mike Clark-Madison would round out the hour talking about state and/or Austin politics, which usually attracted far fewer calls.
The experience was fascinating, the folks at 1370 terrific to work with. The decision to stop was mine, though I think that, given the show's decreasing emphasis on local politics, they were not disappointed.
Last week I said I would go into the reasons for the decision to leave. The answer isn't easy. Priorities are central. Suffice it to say by last night I'd written more than 2,000 words discussing leaving and had barely started. In light of that length, I wasn't even going to contemplate the legislative session. This was the root of the problem. Talk radio in general and the audience and topics for that show had become the center of my thinking and writing. My interior dialogue (writing, running, or just daydreaming) centered more and more around 1370AM and right-wing arguments. My target audience should be Chronicle readers; the voices in my head should be their voices. This column doesn't pretend to offer truths but ideas, doesn't even look for agreement but dialogue. I was losing focus.
Michael King, commenting on a recent "Page Two," opined that I was listening to way too much talk radio -- his tone more concerned than amused. I realized he was right.
Several weeks back, the show moved from 6-7pm to 5-6pm. Whether or not that was the reason, the phones rarely stopped ringing. The callers ranged from a very few who agreed and many who disagreed, but offered differing arguments, to those who viciously attacked, trying to prove me wrong or just call me names. The last show, in light of the Dixie Chicks' recent free-speech adventures, argued on the necessity for all involved in a democratic society to feel free to speak out. It was brutal. A few agreed, some engaged, but many just attacked. I had always thought the far right held a principled (if misguided) stand against big government. Over the weeks it became apparent that, though they didn't like taxes or the government helping people, they didn't mind the military massively showing the world America's superior power. Most disturbing, they didn't want complex, difficult government but a simple-sentence leader like President Bush, who wowed them into passionate, partisan enthusiasm. And some really hated free speech, differing opinions, and me -- calling me a liar when I expressed my opinion. The unbridled anger of some callers was surprising, given that the Republican agenda, in the nation and state, is triumphant. Finally, one caller made a passing reference to what should have been my personal life. It wasn't a threat, not even a hint, but entirely if mundanely inappropriate. And that was it: A barrier had been broached. The show was over. I miss it -- it was always exciting -- and I miss the folks at 1370AM. But I haven't listened to any talk radio since, and I feel cleaner -- and, if nothing else, mentally, it is a lot quieter.