Bush's Lone Star Political Lessons

The President learned the ropes in the rough-and-tumble world of Texas politics. Now, those experiences are his guiding light

By Richard S. Dunham

In my days as a young political reporter in Texas, I always got a chuckle when the state's junior Senator, Lloyd Bentsen, would say that politics in the Lone Star State "ain't bean bag." Texas politics, he said with a gleam in his patrician eyes, "is a contact sport."

I learned another lesson in 1981, when, as a rookie statehouse reporter for The Dallas Times Herald, I asked a freshman state senator named Dee Travis about allegations that he was doing favors for political contributors. The suburban Dallas Republican responded that corporate interests couldn't buy him because "I'd do it for free."

The comments of Bentsen, whose distinguished career ended with a stint as Treasury Secretary, and Travis, who faded into obscurity after a single term, came back to me this week amid the flight of the Killer D's. Those are the 50-plus Democratic state legislators who fled to Oklahoma to deny the Republican-controlled Texas House the quorum it needs to ram through the most outrageously partisan congressional redistricting map since California Democrats disemboweled their Republican brethren in 1981.

FORMATIVE YEARS.

  The escape from Austin was an archetypically Texan tactic, one last used 24 years ago by a group of liberal state senators dubbed the Killer Bees for their destructive flight. The Bees hid out in a West Austin garage apartment to prevent conservatives from redrawing state election laws to assist the Presidential aspirations of former Texas Governor John Connally. Three of the dirty dozen were voted out of office a year later. One was replaced by Dee Travis.

The recent flight of the Killer D's -- most of whom fled across the Red River in a rented bus on May 11 and dined at Denny's in lovely Ardmore, Okla., as they plotted political strategy -- is a compelling bit of Texana. But it also has national implications. Why? Because President Bush and I came of age in Texas politics in the era of the Killer Bees, and the lessons he learned are being replayed on Capitol Hill and in international relations.

The man most immediately responsible for the flight of the Killer D's is another conservative Republican from Midland -- Texas House Speaker Tommy Craddick, a Bush contemporary who grew up in the same macho oil-patch culture that shaped the President.

GETTING THE FRAT VOTE.

  It's also instructive to note that one of Bentsen's victims in his march to the Senate in 1970 was one George Herbert Walker Bush. The President's dad learned that Texas politics ain't bean bag when he was drubbed by the tough-as-nails Bentsen, a fellow millionaire Houston businessman whose velvet gloves concealed an iron fist. Back then, campaigning for his father, George W. sometimes wore his National Guard flight jacket, according to biographer Bill Minutaglio. (Flash forward to 2003: Victorious over Saddam Hussein, Bush looked dashing in his flight suit as he landed aboard the Abraham Lincoln.)

When the younger Bush first ran for office in 1978 -- the year before the Killer Bees took wing -- he was defeated for Congress by a conservative Democrat named Kent Hance. The son of West Texas farmers, Hance portrayed Bush as a carpetbagging son of Harvard and Yale -- despite the fact that the young oilman grew up in Midland.

A turning point in the race came when the Bush campaign promised free beer to Texas Tech University students at a "Bush Bash." The Democrats responded by denouncing the stunt in letters sent to thousands of teetotaler church members. In the end, Hance won handsomely. The Democrats did what it took to win. Nothing personal, George. Texas politics ain't bean bag.

PARTY LINES.

  In those days, Texas Dems ruled the roost. The same year Bush lost to Hance, a respected Houston lawyer named James Baker III lost a race for Texas Attorney General to a career politician named Mark White, who thought he was on the path to the White House until he ran into a roadblock named Karl Rove in 1986. Rove's candidate squashed then-Governor White's Presidential dreams and introduced him to the pleasures of the private sector. Rove, not White, ended up in the White House. By Richard S. Dunham Still, in the Old Texas, Republicans were not generally considered an oppressed minority. On most issues, probusiness Republicans and probusiness Democrats teamed up in a bipartisan way to trounce "the libs." But there was one major exception to this chummy conservative bipartisanship: redistricting. It was the one subject that united almost all of the fractious Democrats, from the increasingly endangered white rural Dems to the increasingly endangered white urban Dems. It meant their survival.

In 1981, clever Republicans almost upset the Democratic establishment by teaming up with dissident African Americans, who had a legitimate gripe about being taken for granted by the party of LBJ. GOP Senator John Leedom of Dallas, a nice man with a political philosophy well to the right of Attila the Hun, drew one memorable map that illegally excluded islands of black voters from the surrounding sea of white Republicans. Federal courts ended up imposing their own map.

LONG NECK.

  In 1991, Democrats used their complete control of state government to develop a devious (or brilliant) plan that created safe districts for Democrats while carving out strategic portions of the Republicans' anatomy.

George W. Bush, then a baseball-team owner, scored a measure of revenge in 1994, when he ousted Ann Richards, the governor who delayed Republican dreams of legislative dominance and insulted his daddy. Four years later, Bush won a reelection landslide that set the stage for complete GOP control of Texas government. The 2002 Republican sweep made Craddick, Bush's fellow Midlander, the state's first Republican speaker in 130 years.

And that brings us to the present scenario. Craddick is determined to destroy the Democratic majority in the Texas congressional delegation, even if that means stretching one district from wealthy, tech-heavy North Austin all the way to some of the poorest precincts in the nation along the Mexican border, with a narrow neck through the barbecue capital of the Free World, Lockhart.

GIVING IT AWAY.

  Back at the ranch in Crawford, the President has bigger fish to fry. Like Senator Bentsen three decades earlier, Bush is doing what it takes to win. On education legislation, he teamed up with liberal icon Ted Kennedy to pass bipartisan reform. On his 2001 tax cut, that meant playing hardball with Democrats and only compromising when necessary. In 2002, that meant campaigning for the defeat of some of the Democratic senators who had abandoned their party leadership to support Bush a year earlier. Nothing personal. Politics ain't bean bag.

Saddam and Jacques Chirac got a dose of Texas, too. Do what it takes to win, whether that's fight or flight. Can't win a U.N. Security Council vote? Then French fries and French oil contracts in Iraq are off the menu. America's longtime allies in Canada don't support military force in Iraq -- and all of a sudden Bush doesn't have time to meet with Prime Minister Jean Chretien. Scheduling conflict. Nothing personal, Jean. Diplomacy ain't bean bag.

Then there are those no-bid Halliburton contracts in post-war Iraq. Liberals are complaining that Bush is repaying campaign contributors and his loyal Vice-President, Dick Cheney, who used to be Halliburton's CEO. But to paraphrase that old Texas sage, Dee Travis, Bush isn't for sale. He'd do it for free.

PLAYING TO WIN.

  The President is steeped in Midland's sense of free enterprise and risk-taking individualism. He firmly believes that his tax plan is the best way to generate jobs in the short run and economic revival over the long haul. Democratic claims that the tax cut benefits wealthy Bush benefactors are of no concern to the man from Midland. That's class-warfare garbage.

Senate Republican moderates say they won't accept anything more than a $350 billion (net) tax cut. The President is undeterred. He's taking his case to the people, hoping to generate sufficient heat to cause a couple of senators to wilt. Don't bet against him. Bush plays to win. And he hasn't lost since Kent Hance whupped him in '78.

The Killer D's are in Austin. The Doormat D's are in Washington. And in both cities, Republicans from Midland know that politics is a contact sport.

Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Beth Belton

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