Running on Empty
Bush has been a relentless supporter of NAFTA. Even as the needle-trade industry all but disappeared in Texas, with a final wave of Levi's plant closings in January and February marking the fifth anniversary of the signing of the trade agreement, the governor had neither a program nor a word of consolation for displaced workers. "NAFTA is good for Texas and good for Mexico," Bush said in his January State of the State speech.
All in all, the combination of Bush's public policy agenda and his family name have made him the most successful fundraiser in the history of a state where no limits are imposed on political contributions or expenditures. In the office of the Texas Ethics Commission, Bush's contributions and expenditures filings for the last election fill fourteen file boxes, and his contributions are close to $18 million (his Democratic opponent's filings, at $3 million, fill less than one box). Those boxes include pages and pages of listings of small donors generated by direct mail sent out by Karl Rove + Associates, punctuated by an occasional page or two of $5,000-$25,000 listings from fundraisers in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. Rove, an Austin political consultant who has worked for Texas Senator Phil Gramm and President George Bush, is considered to be a brilliant pragmatist with an aversion to the GOP's Christian right. In March, Rove sold his agency to devote all his time to Bush, who has already raised more than $6 million for his presidential campaign. "Soft-money coffers of the Republican Party are going to explode," said Andrew Wheat of Texans For Public Justice, "and a Bush victory might require bunkbeds in the Lincoln Bedroom."
Rove is perhaps one reason Bush has been talking to former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed, who has expressed interest in working on Bush's presidential campaign. With Rove focused on the party's economic conservatives and Reed speaking to the Christian right, Bush could continue to walk the same line he has had to follow since fundamentalist Christians seized control of the state party machinery at the 1994 convention. (When you hear a guy with an Andover, Harvard and Yale c.v. out on the hustings selling phonics--the Christian right's panacea for all that ails education--understand that he's speaking in tongues intended to be understood by the Christian right.)
Catering to the Christian right has shaped much of Bush's policy. James Leininger, a San Antonio multimillionaire and antichoice absolutist, provided $65,000 to Bush's most recent election campaign. Bush's abortion politics don't completely satisfy Leininger, but the governor does oppose abortion except in cases of rape, incest or risk to the life of the mother, and he recently told the Associated Press that he would support a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade. Leininger's public policy think tank promotes a Christian version of the "compassionate conservatism" that Bush has embraced: the use of Christian theology to dismantle what is left of government services to the poor. "There is not much compassionate conservatism in the full-family sanctions the Governor's staff is forcing on us," said a member of the Democratic House leadership team speaking off the record. Full-family sanctions would remove from public assistance the children of anyone found in any violation of any public assistance regulation. Meanwhile, in his State of the State speech, Bush described Tillie Burgin--who hands out baloney sandwiches and old clothes to those left behind by the state's booming economy--as "one drill sergeant in the army of compassion" and "the Mother Teresa of Arlington, Texas."
One other aspect of Bush's record in Texas that is likely to come in for careful scrutiny in a presidential campaign is his past business dealings--which appear to have benefited from his family connections. In 1986 he rolled his small, unsuccessful west Texas oil company stock into Harken Energy, a small company with no international experience, which four years later landed a drilling contract with the island emirate of Bahrain. "This is an incredible deal, unbelievable for a small company," a Houston-based energy analyst told Forbes when Harken negotiated exclusive transportation, exploration, development, production, transportation and marketing rights to most of Bahrain's offshore oil-and-gas reserves. Not only did Bush buy into Harken while his father was Vice President but by the time big George was sworn in as President, George W. was a board member and on retainer at $50,000 a year as a Harken consultant. When George W. cashed in 66 percent of his Harken holdings, shortly before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait sent Harken's stock price plummeting, he failed for eight months to declare to the Securities and Exchange Commission his insider sale, as required by law. That sale, as the Wall Street Journal later reported, earned him $848,560.
In 1998 Bush hit a grand slam, selling his 1.8 percent interest in the Texas Rangers for $15 million, a fair return on $600,000 invested ten years earlier. With no baseball experience, Bush was brought on as a managing partner while the Rangers were expanding. It didn't hurt to have the President's son on deck while the legislature was voting in 1991 on a quasi-governmental sports authority that could condemn private land for a stadium and pay for it by increasing the local sales tax.
The official campaign hasn't begun, but Bush is working a room in the Four Seasons in downtown Austin. Table to table, handshake to handshake, he seems determined to greet everyone at the 7:30 legislative prayer breakfast. He steps to the mike and is relaxed and gracious in telling the keynote speaker why he will have to speak first. He tells the obligatory joke, this time about Jesse Ventura, and eases into a speech that includes a brief account of his recent trip to Israel. He's off script, but he doesn't say anything dopey, as he often does when he doesn't have a prepared text. The speech ends with an account of his flight over Jerusalem and a story about a gentile and a Jew getting on their knees and placing their hands into the shallow water of the Sea of Galilee. Then he slowly recites an ecumenical hymn the gentile offered up as a parting toast. The audience loves him and he loves the audience. Then he's gone, all hand-and-eye contact on the way to the door. And you think that if you could only forget the policies, the appointments and the vetoes, you could really love this guy. He's that good.