What now? When the election is finally over, the work gets really serious
By the time you read this effusion, the election results will be in (see p. 24), and the endless rhetorical din and melodramatic deluge will presumably be subsiding. I'm writing a few days before Nov. 5, trying to imagine what life will be like under the new regimes, whichever they may be. Despite the endlessly desperate noise, we all know the unspectacular short-term answer -- not much different -- although the shape of that difference will begin reverberating in our public lives for months and then years to come. What follows are a few speculations, not precisely about the winners, but about the political possibilities in the U.S. and Texas for the next couple of years.
Here at the Chron we've taken a few hard shots at Ron Kirk as Dallas mayor and as Dem candidate, for his reflexively "consensus" politics -- i.e., let the people who matter decide what should happen and then persuade you that it's good for you. But we're also painfully aware that John Cornyn is a more slickly packaged Phil Gramm (not a happy combination), and whoever wins this Senate race will be representing Texas nationally and internationally for a long time to come. Kirk has run a professionally savvy campaign -- the man could charm the ugly off Strom Thurmond -- and more importantly for ordinary Texans, his candidacy has reached out directly to an African-American community taken for granted forever by the state Democratic Party. Inside the state (indeed, throughout the South) his election would validate a cultural ground-shift as significant as any since desegregation.
Nationally, it's harder to tell what Kirk or Cornyn might mean, as each literally represents a competing wing of Texas corporate interests (roughly, the trial lawyers vs. the institutional investors). They differ in emphasis but not in their fundamentally conservative, top-down notions of how public business should be managed and primarily for whose benefit. The national importance of this race will instead be determined by the consequent balance of congressional power. Should the Reagan/Bush Republicans retake the Senate and hold the House, the National Security state most visibly represented by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and John Ashcroft will tighten its grip and move forward, without even the minimal drag provided by liberal Democrats and the working-class constituencies they still represent.
So watch that national red/blue map -- while remembering that whoever wins the Senate, it remains virtually certain that the U.S. will be at war in Iraq early next year.
Even by the long-established low standards of Texas gutter politics -- fondly recall Jim Mattox calling fellow Democrat Ann Richards a coke-head -- the Rick Perry vs. Tony Sanchez race has been marvelously unedifying. With only days to go, Perry appears to have the Lower-Than-a-Snake's-Belly-in-a-Wheel-Rut Prize all locked up. Maybe they'll surprise us, but I can't imagine even Sanchez's best character assassins coming up with something quite so egregious as "accessory to the torture-murder of a federal agent" before Nov. 5.
Beneath the melodrama, two deeper things are worth noting about this campaign. A quick and consistent descent into mud-slinging is always an indication of slender policy differences between two candidates, who can therefore only distinguish themselves by calling each other nasty names. And the steep last-minute mudslide by presumed frontrunner Perry strongly suggests that his handlers -- perhaps spooked by early voting totals -- believed he was in trouble. By now you know if they were right.
Presuming Perry has won, how readily can he govern after accusing the opposition party's standard-bearer of murder? Perry showed his reflexive distaste for legislating last session, and now Democrats with any spine should frustrate his already lackluster initiatives out of hand. Presuming Perry miscalculated, and instead Sanchez has won his staggering personal gamble, Lege Republicans will find themselves in the unlucky position of trying to work with a governor who owes them absolutely nothing. Either result should be interesting -- if not necessarily productive for ordinary Texans. That's because, no matter who rules next session, the crises facing the state, structural and financial, remain the same.
Although the governor's race is important, in state politics the Lege is where the rubber meets the road. If Sanchez loses but John Sharp wins, the balance of power will be roughly akin to Bob Bullock's lieutenant governorship under George Bush's administration: a steady-as-she-goes moderate Lege, tinkering pragmatically with education and health care without much help from the Mansion, but also without much interference. The Lege won't try to do much, but Perry is less likely to embarrass himself so thoroughly by willful inaction and then a flurry of last-minute vetoes. A David Dewhurst victory will be enfeebling, but unlikely to upset the actual workings of Senate power because the Senate will simply disarm him, and he'll be too busy preening for higher office to care.
On the House side, even with the likely GOP majority, much depends on whether moderate Dems and Republicans can hold the internal leadership consensus and choose as speaker either Pete Laney or one of the handful of GOP Laney-likes: cautious, consensus-building, pragmatic, institutionally fair. If the right-wing caucus, flush with late-money victories and no interest in compromise, can choose one of their own, the likely result will be both inanity and gridlock. That would mean much hysteria about social decadence and family values, with consequent collateral human damage statewide -- especially to young women -- and no movement at all on the state's fundamental crises, most importantly in education and health care. Should Laney and his allies survive, the session will remain "moderate": no flagrant attempts to balance the budget on the backs of the poorest citizens, but also no consistent movement to improve their lot and consequently the common public welfare of all Texans. The crocodiles' lament will remain: "We have no money!" That was the intended and inexorable pattern established by the Bush administration's state tax cuts and the pattern he has enthusiastically repeated nationally (with submissive endorsements, it must be added, by most Democrats at both levels).
Where does that leave the rest of us? Where we always are: bearing the continuing responsibility to build community from the ground up, to support statewide movements to support public needs and defend public rights, to maintain the community pressure on even the best politicians to enable them to do what must be done.
The real work is always just beginning.