Dressing the Emperor: Making Bush Seem 'Presidential'
Now that Rick "Boll Weevil" Perry is comfortably in charge of all of Texas, we shouldn't get too glum about the state of the nation. The comic possibilities of the Second Coming of George Bush have already begun to present themselves.
It took no longer than Bipartisan Night at the House, Dec. 13, when the president-elect revealed what he had been doing all those weeks up in Crawford: memorizing his acceptance speech. Following a pro-forma introduction acknowledging Al Gore's concession, Bush proceeded into a rote recitation of his campaign bromides sufficient to glaze the eyes of any dignitary not already blinded by the TV lights or the oversized Christmas tree obscuring most of the room.
Apparently, the Guv had finally been successfully coached to cease and desist from his trademark head-bobbing, which he has heretofore employed to punctuate virtually every sentence. For this occasion, to syncopate his sound bites he substituted a rhythmic side-to-side glance -- eerily reminiscent of those paintings designed to follow the viewer across the room. The partisan crowd was brimming with invited staff members, who had already been warned by signs posted outside (beside the spiffy new metal detectors) not to make any untoward demonstration ("No Chanting") on such an august occasion. Not to worry: The assembled TV extras could manage ovations only at Bush's entry and his stilted praise of wife Laura, "a wonderful first lady for America."
From there it was downhill, via Social Security, Medicare, and tax relief, until the governor finally arrived at his only laugh line of the evening: his recollections of Thomas Jefferson, who also sought "the cause of freedom and harmony." Afterwards, the desperate speechwriter's juxtaposition of the Sage of Virginia and the Texas Shrub should have produced hilarity in the most craven, hard-hearted TV spin doctor. Alas, it was not to be: Talking heads and professorate alike praised Bush's "statesmanlike" delivery, heating the chilly national air with pseudo-presidential expectation.
The emperor's tailors are open for business.
A couple of days later, at least Jefferson was off the hook. Bush's favorite Methodist minister (Mark Craig of Highland Park United) was pronouncing his most famous communicant a "Moses," who had been chosen to lead the country "by God." While it is true Antonin Scalia has always behaved as though he thinks he's God, this is the first time we've heard that presumption ratified by an ordained minister.
Thankfully, we were brought to earth a few days later by the ever-ready Bush staff, so eager to demonstrate that their man Moses is not as ignorant of Canaanites and Philistines as he appears to be. Stung by the criticism that the Designated President has little expertise in foreign policy, they produced a list of all the countries Bush the Younger has visited. The list included some big ones (France, Egypt, China with Poppy), a few medium-sized (Italy, Japan, Israel, England), a couple of imperial colonies (Guatemala, Bermuda on vacation) and Mexico and Canada "many times."
Well now. I've been to Dublin, too, but that doesn't make me Cathleen ni Houlihan.
-- And Assembling His Tribunes As we send the Lone Star State's finest onward and outward to the nation, it's worth recalling that we're only returning multiple favors: The Midwest sends us its Winnebagoed snowbirds, California its silicon yuppies, New York its toxic sewage, and Maine and Vermont are just desperate to send us their nuclear waste. As the Bush train rolls toward Washington, carrying away its undistinguished cargo of Texas careerists, sycophants, and hangers-on, in this holiday season we need to remember: It's better to give than to receive.
Besides, we have our own problems. In just a few short weeks, the Lege will be open for business, and there's no telling what new outrages are in the offing. The hope among sane observers is that this session the members will be so preoccupied with redistricting that, as one wag put it, "they won't get around to anything else."
Prior to the election, the expectation was that the shape of redistricting -- congressional as well as legislative -- would be dictated by the new party majorities. Instead, we have the old majorities -- Republicans in the Mansion and Senate, Democrats in the House -- so that the GOP should retain the upper hand in the redistricting negotiations, but not by much. That promises long hours and much posturing and a toss-up as to whether the Lege will come up with its own plan or hand the tar baby over to the Legislative Redistricting Board and keep its fingers crossed. Since the board (by constitutional provision) is composed of the lieutenant governor, speaker of the house, attorney general, comptroller, and land commissioner, Democrats who can count are expected to do all they can to keep the matter in the Lege, while Republicans have an obvious interest in punting.
But in the absence of explicit one-party domination -- because the bipartisan legislative majority remains the Property Party, and the rest of us are merely supplicants -- the most likely scenario will be the traditional plan for Incumbent Protection. Had the Democrats done better than hold their own in the election, there was some talk of more dramatic proposals -- perhaps even an East Texas minority district, justified by the demographic numbers if not by the powers-that-be. Now, the early handicapping is that new districts will reinforce the patterns already in place, with neither side overplaying its hand.
"They will probably do something pro-incumbent," one longtime Democratic political consultant told the Chronicle last month. "The smart ones always know that if they try to push the balance too far one way or the other, it can backfire. I remember going through this with [the late lt. governor] Bob Bullock one time before, and being disappointed with the final district maps they negotiated. Bullock looked at me and said, 'I know you think we fucked ourselves. But I need a budget, and that's 21 [Senate] votes, and I'm tired of redistricting.'"
Should the members finally get around to actual legislation, there are various matters of interest to public-minded citizens that should come up this session: some as possible takeaways or grand acts of institutional regression, some (one can always hope) as potential steps in a sensible direction. A few likely possibilities:
If Time Allows
Prisons: For a decade, the state has tried to build and spend its way out of the prison-crowding crisis. It hasn't worked -- primarily because the Lege and the Feds were simultaneously inventing newly barbaric ways to be tough on crime, especially via the "War on Drugs." Faced with even more overcrowding -- and dramatically increased costs -- the state pols may be coming to their fiscal if not humanitarian senses: Early scuttlebutt predicts not more prison beds, but fewer prisoners. How they hope to do that, particularly when the Lock 'Em Up Caucus begins demagoguing the floor, is not at all clear, but the likely solution is to beef up the Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice budget without necessarily authorizing new dungeons. Austin Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos told the Chronicle his "top priority ... is to prevent a single dollar" going to new prison construction.
Prison guards: If there is little or no money for new prisons, there will be for correctional officers. Following several high-profile attacks on guards, embarrassing Capitol demonstrations, and an explosion in guard activism, both parties are on record as supporting significant increases in officer pay. As with most such social indicators, Texas is setting its sights high: the national average. The question is, can we get there immediately (as the officers demand) or in two or four years (as is the likely Lege target, always playing catch-up)? Here's where the fight starts over the budget "surplus."
Teacher insurance: Since the teachers were also a targeted audience in the last election -- and both parties have noticed that education has overtaken law and order as a voter priority -- some sort of teacher/school employee insurance plan is likely to pass this session. Whether it will be a comprehensive plan to cover all employees in all districts (as teachers want), or some piecemeal approach allowing districts to opt out altogether or in part (as serves the budget's protectors), remains to be seen. It's a money issue, and there is dramatically less money, because of ...
Taxes: In a bipartisan effort to give the governor his presidential campaign boost, the Lege pretty much gave away the store in the last two sessions: large and permanent homestead property tax exemptions (largely evaporated by rising rates), and a shell-game reliance on boom-time "surpluses" to solve any crises. "These are time bombs waiting for a recession," says tax analyst Dick Lavine of the Center for Public Policy Priorities. "When we most need the money, we won't have it."
Chances are that any 2001 tax cuts will be "targeted" -- that is, dictated by specific industry demands. Big oil and gas is said to be trolling for another cut in the severance tax (just as the industry begins generating revenue again, after an "emergency" tax giveaway when prices were low in 1999). Intel is reportedly stalling on the completion of an already-planned installation in Fort Worth in hopes of receiving a $100 million property tax exemption. (Try that with your new house addition.) On a more positive note, lawmakers may finally be realizing that the inequitable no-tax subsidies to World Wide Web retailers must end: Look for some state progress on joining a nationwide sales tax standard.
Workers' rights: Texas is notoriously deficient in protecting workers on the job, and worse in protecting their legal rights. What the Legislature doesn't write away, the courts opine away. Specifically, the Workers' Compensation system badly needs fixing -- right now, a better name would be Workers' No-Comp -- and new Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, has been holding public hearings about the system. One new wrinkle was described by several injured workers: cold calls from insurance companies apparently masquerading as "workers' comp" representatives, thereby acquiring private medical info to use against workers. Meanwhile, conservative lawmakers, deaf to health and safety concerns but exquisitely attuned to industry complaints of rising medical costs, are said to be considering new legislation to force injured workers to use company doctors. That should certainly put a dent in approved claims.
Environment: With the Bush regime officially installed in the White House, look for Texas air, water, and earth to be newly assaulted in a pincer movement: a sudden reluctance at the Environmental Protection Agency to press national standards, coupled with a new resistance in the business community and at the Lege (some reactionary bills already in the works) against those standards. A test case will be the outcome of the Houston air-quality non-attainment negotiations, now in progress: Will the EPA follow its own regs and insist on an effective (and mandatory) cleanup, or will the new wind of Environmental Volunteerism blow from Austin up to D.C.? One singularly embarrassing factoid may make it a bit more difficult for the Burn-and-Spew crowd to persist in defending the state's reliance on voluntary air pollution reduction since 1997: A new-draft TNRCC study, required under the law, just confirmed that there have been zero air pollution reductions -- that is, none -- as a consequence of the permits granted under the voluntary program. But remember: These guys have no shame.
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