Running on Empty
"You tell me what he's done," the vice president of the Waxaha chie branch of the NAACP said to me when Governor George W. Bush dropped in last month at a Capitol lawn luncheon organized by the Texas House Black Caucus. "What's he done for black folks and what's he doing here?"
"Nothing" and "running for President" were the simplest answers to Victor Burnett's rhetorical questions--unless you take into account Bush's support for vouchers, which are also supported by a small minority of African-Americans in Texas. Burnett, a former city councilman from a small town south of Dallas, left his table to walk over to where I was standing and make the case against Bush. The handful of Bush supporters I talked to at the luncheon could name no single policy that served the interest of the black community--or any community. "I like his stand on education," a bank officer from Dallas told me, although I had to remind her of the specific education policy ("You mean vouchers?") she supported. But she could not recall a single economic-development policy, nor a political appointment, that might make a difference to an African-American woman living in one of the most racially divided cities in the nation.
The president of the San Antonio chapter of the NAACP was even less specific. "My support for Governor Bush goes back to before he got into politics," Thomas Rockeymoore said. "It goes back to his father; I'm retired military." But what specific policy? What appointment? Rockeymoore was in Austin for a day of lobbying for the NAACP, yet he couldn't name a single policy issue on which the support of the governor and the interest of the black community coincided.
To be fair, it was a tough question. George W. won't wear you out with policy particulars. ("I want to see prosperity spread its wings all across America," comes to mind. On Kosovo he told a press conference: "My question is, 'Is it good for America?' And that'll be the question I'll ask should I end up being the President.") And a capital press corps that is so friendly to the governor that some reporters regularly violate the state's archaic sodomy statute, which Bush supports, hasn't exactly undertaken a critical examination of his record. (Bush has thus far put off the national media with responses like, "I'll be glad to answer all those questions once I get out in the course of the campaign.") So it's no surprise that even people who support him don't exactly know why.
Bush defeated popular, one-term incumbent Ann Richards in 1994 by matching her dollar for dollar and running a smart campaign that focused on violent crime and education. He's good on TV, great in a crowd and upon election began to build personal relationships with Democrats in the Statehouse--something Richards never did. Then Bush delivered on his "tough love" promise of boot camps for young lawbreakers, and he set out to end "social promotion" in public schools and begin a voucher program for private schools. So it could be that a country-club Republican who has learned the language of the Christian right is a better fit for a conservative state (fiftieth in per capita spending on government programs and fifth in the percentage of people living in poverty) than a progressive Democrat like Richards. "Texas is not a rich state," Molly Ivins has said. "It's Mississippi with good roads."
But although Bush may be a good fit for Texas, is he a good fit for the nation? Consider, for a start, his legislative record. As guests of the Black Caucus settled in for lunch, the House was at work on the first piece of his 1999 agenda. "There's a lot of people hurting," the governor had said this past January when he requested that the Senate waive its procedural rules and immediately bring to the floor a $45 million tax break for the oil-and-gas industry. The decline in oil-and-gas prices, Bush argued, erodes the earnings of thousands of "stripper well" owners (most unaccustomed to seeing their annual individual income fall below $100,000). And it threatens the flow of tax revenue the wells provide to a number of Texas school districts.
The relief bill for owners of these marginally productive wells was not going to be stopped in the House, the last redoubt of the Texas Democratic Party after Bush's defeat of hopelessly underfunded Land Commissioner Garry Mauro carried Republicans into all twenty-seven statewide elected offices, from attorney general to land commissioner. In fact, House Democrats couldn't even hold their six-seat majority together to limit oil-and-gas tax relief to $200,000 per individual. But a veteran black legislator from Houston did use the debate to direct legislators' attention to another bill, which the governor and his staff were opposing. The oil-and-gas bill is about relief, "about helping people out," Sylvester Turner said, praising perhaps too effusively the tax bill and its Republican sponsors. So he was going to vote for it. Then Turner challenged every representative who was going to cast a vote for the governor's oil-industry bill to vote for adequate funding of the federal/state Children's Health Insurance Program, which would be on the House floor within a few weeks.