Some Friendly, Post-Defeat Advice for What's Left of the Texas Democratic Party
What happened in Texas on Tuesday won't stay in Texas. The dominant Republican Party didn't just win. It didn't just win big. The Republicans won HUGE. The Democrats here suffered a dinosaur-killing meteor strike, the closest thing to an extinction-level event any of us are likely to see in politics, and it will take them a very long time to recover from it. After Tuesday, the Texas Democratic Party's headquarters looks a bit like this:
Starting from the top of the ticket, Gov. Rick Perry led the way, coasting to a 13-point win over Democrat Bill White. That was expected, as were the victories that all of the other statewide elected Republicans enjoyed. The Democrats at that level just never became competitive, and they also woke up to another grim reality: Thanks to a statewide candidate's performance by the lefty Green Party, that party will automatically appear on Texas ballots for years to come. So the already reeling Texas Democrats will face a left flank.
They also lost three seats in the U.S. House, and going into a redistricting year, they'll probably be on their heels for years to come.
The real shock occurred in the Texas House, where Republicans won a whopping 99 seats out of 150. The previous record was 88 seats, and the Republicans had actually lost seats over the previous two cycles. No one expected the GOP to get back to 88, much less pass it. But 2010 not only reversed the trend, it crushed it into a fine powder: There are now almost two Republicans for every Democrat in the state House. What all of this adds up to is conservative governance unleashed. And the timing couldn't be better: Texas faces a two-year budget hole of about $21 to $25 billion thanks to the national recession. With Republicans in control, spending cuts and efficiencies, not tax hikes, will lead the list of remedies.
As for the Texas Democrats, they have a huge hole of their own to dig out of. The voters sent them a very loud and clear message that Texas doesn't like the "progressive" politics that the Texas Democrats have been peddling. The Texas Democrats don't seem likely to get that message, though. Several years of defeat don't seem to have taught them much, other than to become more strident and shift farther to the left.
When I arrived in Texas in April 2009, I'd been out of the state for most of the previous 16 years. I'd spent four years in the Air Force overseas, then close to a dozen in deep blue Maryland. As conservative as the day I left Texas, 16 years later I returned to a state that was more conservative than I'd remembered, and, unlike the sclerotic Maryland I'd left, new. Texas seemed energetic, young and on the move with gleaming new highways adorned with the iconic Lone Star everywhere. Businesses seemed to be flourishing everywhere despite the recession, and the cities, especially the state's mid-size cities like Austin, seemed to have quadrupled or more in size.
Baltimore, by contrast, lived up to the description attributed to Mencken, that it appeared to be the "ruins of a once great city." Even with its newish Inner Harbor, it just felt old.
Having only come back home for holiday visits during those years away, I'd lost a bit of what it was like to live in a state that has a real image of itself, and revels in that image, of being the place where rugged individual can still reach for their dreams. It was good to be home, and better even than I'd expected. The abundance of great Mexican food and the best steak anywhere were just the proverbial icing on the cake.
So when I returned, I came back to a Texas in the grip of conservatives up and down the state. And relative to the other large states, Texas was on the move. When I ran across the occasional gripe that Gov. Perry wasn't conservative enough or whatnot, I just about wanted to take the griper by the lapels and shake some sense into them. You have no idea how good you have it here. Don't screw it up.
Oddly enough, I also found a Democratic Party that wasn't responding well to its life in the wilderness. The Democrats were a party in disarray, without any real leadership, dispirited from a decade of defeat, and completely out of ideas of its own. On paper they looked formidable, with twice the staff of the state GOP and with the Austin media in their back pocket and a thriving blogosphere to back them up, and with Obama's personal army on the march for them all over the state. But all of that hid the reality that under state party chairman Boyd Richie, the Texas Democrats had become little more than a "progressive" corpse, animated from afar by the Democratic National Committee, Organizing for America, and Matt Angle's Shadow Party operation, otherwise known as the Lone Star Project. It was only in the latter that the Democrats here had any real energy, and even that energy was put to foul purposes. Angle's operation isn't a policy shop or idea factory, it's just a Democrat ex machina, a means by which Democrats try to attain power by killing the careers of Republicans by whatever means are at hand. Its only function is destructive. It stands for and does nothing positive.
Pressed to define what they stand for, Texas Democrats will give some version of their slogan, "Moving Texas Forward." As the message guy for the other side when I returned to Texas, I loved that slogan. It's an empty vessel, into which I could pour my own ideas at will. And so, in press releases and media hits, I'd work my own version of an ending onto their idea: The Democrats are just trying to move Texas forward into Obama's bankruptcy. They'll move Texas forward into weakness. They'll move Texas forward into higher taxes, more unemployment, etc. etc. That slogan made it too easy to define them, rather than the Democrats define themselves. Like a lot of things about the Texas Democrats, that slogan was an import. Some genius outside the state came up with it and glued it to every bone in the Democratic skeleton.
The Texas Democrats' problem after Tuesday is fairly obvious: They didn't define themselves clearly because they couldn't. If they cloned the DNC's mantra outright, they would be admitting that they are too far to the left of Texas voters. If they defined themselves too close to the center or right, they would be seen as repudiating the very president they had helped elect and still supported, which would call into question why they supported him in the first place. Obama's hard lurch to the far left had left the Texas Democrats with no room to maneuver. It made it easy to charge them for being what they are: a party that is no longer indigenous to Texas. It's a foreign parasite.
But if the Texas Democrats want to hear from a critic about what they need to do to become competitive in Texas again after their latest beating, I'm happy to offer some unsolicited advice.
To begin with, the easy stuff: Stop insulting the voters. When the Tea Party rose up, you joined the national Democrats in calling them "mobs" and so forth. When the Obama administration sued Arizona, you reacted by saying it's a warning to other states, including your own, to stay away from securing the border. To no one's surprise, those moves backfired, big-time.
The president and leadership that your party put in power have just been fired by Texas voters. Texans rejected Obama in 2008, and rejected his entire program and the party that supported him here, in 2010. Voters across America similarly rejected him and his allies. From the bitter ashes of this defeat come an opportunity. This defeat frees you, Texas Democrats, from them. You have the opportunity to publicly reject them and their "progressive" policies. You should take that opportunity, the sooner the better. Ditch everything that looks like it came from the DNC or OfA. Move "Moving Texas Forward" into the dustbin of history. Send Organizing for America to go organize somewhere else. All their presence did here was let me in my old job with the Texas GOP use them for political target practice.
While you're cleaning house, you need a massive policy makeover. "Progressive" policies are nothing but tax and borrow and spend liberalism with roots even farther to the left, for the purpose of building an all-powerful state. Everybody knows that now. Obama's failure and his late rhetoric -- "enemies" and so forth -- have exposed "hope and change" for the fraud that it always was. Particularly in Texas, those policies were never popular and, given the state's more libertarian nature, never even workable. Ditch 'em. Go total rogue Blue Dog. Listen to some of your wilderness voices like state Rep. Aaron Pena and Greg Windham. They want to pull your party back to the center. They're right. The far left Annie's List crowd is radical and wrong. That crowd, the "Texas Freedom Network," the "Texans for Public Justice" -- all those groups are lefty shells that have collectively pulled your party off a cliff. It's time to muzzle those attack dogs, or put them down. Or go ahead and reject what I'm saying. You'll just make it easier to beat you again in 2012. And if you don't listen to these more centrist voices...? Do I need to bring up Chuck Hopson and the dozens of other Democrats who switched parties this cycle alone? There are a lot more where those former Democrats came from. A lot more. The last high-level Democrat in east Texas, state Rep. Jim McReynolds, was replaced by the young and dynamic conservative Republican James White. Switches and resignations at lower levels are sure to follow these losses. Forget the idea that Texas' changing demographics are enough to give you power ... eventually. As the Republicans attract and propel more and more minority candidates into office, that's getting less realistic with every passing election. You're going to have to face the fact that your "progressives" and their policies are the problem.
Much more difficult will be dealing with the Shadow Party, aka the Lone Star Project. It's a proven failure now: Matt Angle rode into town pledging to take a statewide office and take the state House by 2010. That's now, in case you hadn't noticed, and he's failed. Angle's LSP has spent millions left to him by a late trial lawyer, millions that went into setting up front groups and launching attack after attack after attack on Republicans, and has nothing to show for it. But he is the "de facto state party right now." The problem is, he has no credibility. The TDP lost ground under his watch. Angle isn't in politics for any discernible good. He doesn't even care if Texans want the policies his party offers. He doesn't even seem to care if they're good policies. He's just a soulless operative who wants to destroy Republicans, and he and his pack of wild blogs do just that, 24/7/365. Angle needs to be sent packing, to mess with some other state. Messing with Texas has made him wealthy, but has left the Democratic Party here in worse shape than ever, and made our politics more acrimonious than any of us should like.
Thornier still, will be dealing with the Lone Star Soros, Steve Mostyn. The Houston millionaire lawyer spent about $5 million of his own money this cycle, in order to replace Gov. Perry with Bill White, and in order to capture the state House, evidently to control enough votes to get Texas' successful tort reform overturned. Seen in that light, the $5 million is nothing but a business investment, spent to make it easier for lawyers to sue the pants off of everybody else. Like Angle's fronts, Mostyn and his front groups like the Back to Basics PAC (which are basically sock puppets on his hands) don't really stand for anything other than attack ads and gutter politics. Together, Angle and Mostyn don't just practice the "politics of personal destruction," they are the "politics of personal destruction." And after this election cycle, everyone in Texas knows that that brand of politics is all that they stand for, and everyone knows that they control the Democratic Party.
There is a war coming for the soul of the Democratic Party. Crushing defeats tend to spark these civil wars. On one side we'll see the "progressives" under Obama continue to push for bigger and more intrusive government, and national bankruptcy. On the other side, some adults will have to step up and reject "progressivism" from within the Democratic Party's ranks and reclaim its lost centrism. Given its politics, Texas is as good a place as any for sensible Democrats to start pushing the "progressives" out.
As a partisan Republican, I'm happy to see the Democrats falter and lose. But as an American, I'm tired of the hard left's destructive politics and destructive policies, and its deceptive behavior. As a Texan, I'd like to see the Democratic Party of my grandfathers start a revolution within their ranks that pulls the whole nation back from the brink of European socialism.
I don't expect to see that. But I would like to. No offense, folks, but I don't want to see Texas turn into California.
Update: Heh. If this is the face of your party, Texas Democrats -- and it pretty much is -- you're not going to win here.