Young political reporters are always told there are three ways to judge a politician. The first is to look at the record. The second is to look at the record. And third, look at the record.
The method is tried, true, time-tested, and pretty much infallible. In politics, the past is prologue. If a politician is left, right, weak, strong, given to the waffle or the flip-flop, or, as sometimes happens, an able soul who performs well under pressure, all that will be in the record.
So here we are, with a record about property-tax abatement and tort reform, and if that's not a by-God recipe for bestsellerdom, you can cut off our legs and call us Shorty. Can't you see it now, poor ol' Random House touting this book: "Read all about George W Bush's thrilling adventures with the school-equalization formula, his amazing reversals on the sales tax, and most exciting of all, his tragic failure to take a stand on the matter of 150 versus 200 percent for the CHIP program."
The political career of W Bush is a fairly funny yarn, on account of being the son of a former president is not ... how to put this ... not actually sufficient job training for the governance of a large state. Fortunately, in Texas, this makes no difference.
Unqualified to govern Texas? No problem! The single most common misconception about George W is that he has been running a large state for the past six years. Texas has what is known in political science circles as "the weak-governor system." You may think this is just a Texas brag, but our weak-governor system is a lot weaker than anybody else's.* Although the governor does have the power to call out the militia in case of an Indian uprising, by constitutional arrangement, the governor of Texas is actually the fifth most powerful statewide office: behind lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller, and land commissioner but ahead of agriculture commissioner and railroad commissioner. Which is not to say it's a piddly office. For one thing, it's a bully pulpit. Although truly effective governors are rare in Texas history, a few have made deep impressions and major changes. Besides, people think you're important if you're the governor, and in politics, perception rules. Of course Texans still think their attorney general, the state's civil lawyer, has something to do with law enforcement too.
During Bush's first term, the lieutenant governor was a wily old trout named Bob Bullock. By virtue of the constitution and the Senate rules, plus knowing where all the bodies were buried and outworking everyone else, Bullock was the major player in state government. Dubya got along just fine by doing pretty much what Bullock told him to; Bullock became Dubya's mentor, almost a father-son deal. The day Bullock announced his retirement, Bush stood in the back of the room with tears running down his face. Bullock, after a lifetime in the Democratic Party, endorsed Bush for reelection in 1998. Bullock died in June 1999, to mixed emotions from many. At his funeral, one fatuous commentator said of the rainy weather, "The skies of Texas are weeping because we bury Bob Bullock today." This caused a state senator to inquire sotto voce, "So what did Bullock have on the weather god?"
A political record is a flexible creature, and by custom the pol is permitted to burnish his own and to denigrate his opponent's. The record is often used to fool voters. You say your man was for a certain bill, but was he for it before the amendments or after the amendments? Did the amendments gut the bill or strengthen it? In the case of an executive, you can say your man favors such-and-such a measure, but if he does nothing to help it pass-no phone calls, no face-to-face, no threats, no promises, no pleading about how we really, really need to win this one for the Gipper or the greater good; indeed, if the pol quietly lets it be known that no mourning will ensue in his office should the thing die a premature death-then of what merit is his public statement of support?
It's not easy to find the point at which the acceptable stretcher becomes a flat-out whopper, or when emphasizing the positive goes so far it becomes a hopeless distortion of reality. In Bush's case, largely because of the weakness of his office, the hardest task is to find any footprints at all. He has walked most lightly on the political life of the state. And where one can find his mark on a bill or a policy, it often turns out to have been more strongly shaped by others.
What does emerge from Bush's record is that he has real political skills, and those are not to be despised. Politicians rank so low in the public esteem these days, practically the easiest way to get elected is by claiming you are not a politician. "I'm an undertaker! I know dog about politics! Vote for me! " Bush's resume in office may be slim, but he has worked in and around campaigns for years, knows a lot about the political side of politics, and is good at it. The extent to which credit for his performance should actually go to Karl Rove, the political consultant known as "Bush's brain," is simply unknowable.
Bush's shrewdest political stroke has been a careful wooing of the Hispanic vote. Texas becomes majority minority (now, there's a phrase) in 2008, meaning that blacks and Chicanos combined will outnumber Anglos, according to the demographers at Texas A&M. So wooing the Hispanic vote may seem like a no-brainer, but as you know, Republicans have not, traditionally, bothered much with people of hue. And as that doofus Pete Wilson proved in California, not all Republican governors are bright enough to see the opportunity there.
Bush's second masterstroke has been to straddle the divide between the Christian right and the economic conservatives in the Republican Party, and that is a doozy of a split. In Texas, the Republican Party is owned by the Christian right: the party chair, the vice chairs, and everybody on down. When they won in 1994 they kicked out all the old-guard Texas Republicans, those in the school of George Bush the Elder-somewhat patrician, WASP, faintly elitist or Eastern. On the Christian right, such folks are known sneeringly as "country club Republicans." Republicans don't like to talk about class, but there's clearly a class subtext to their internal fights.
W. Bush is himself a born-again Christian who wants a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion, although he seldom mentions that in front of a general audience. During his father's presidential campaigns, W. Bush was detailed to handle the Christian right, so he has years of experience in working with them. In addition, Rove has positioned him carefully toward the Christian right on a series of nasty but largely symbolic issues in the Texas Legislature.
On the other hand, if Bush were perceived as being a creature of the Christian right, he'd have a hard time in a general election, so the masterful straddle has been keeping a moderate face on the Texas Republican Party while keeping the Christian right happy. Bush's record is actually more to the right on social issues than his image suggests, and that includes some of his more eye-popping appointees to what would be a cabinet if we had a cabinet form of government in Texas, which we don't.
Of Bush's credentials as an economic conservative, there is no question at all-he owes his political life to big corporate money; he's a CEO's wet dream. He carries their water, he's stumpbroke-however you put it, George W. Bush is a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate America. We don't think this is a consequence of political calculation; it is more a consequence of his life experience, political thinking, and party affiliation. We can find no evidence that it has ever do what
occurred to him to question whether it wise to big business wants. He is perfectly comfortable, perfectly at home, doing the bidding of big bidness. These are his friends, and he takes care of his friends-sign of a smart politician. That this matches up nicely with his major campaign contributions is a happy synergy for Governor Bush.
Where Bush is weak is on the governance side of politics. From the record, it appears that he doesn't know much, doesn't do much, and doesn't care much about governing. The exception is a sustained effort on education, with only mixed results. In fact, given his record, it's kind of hard to figure out why he wants a job where he's expected to govern. It's not just that he has no ideas about what to do with government-if you think his daddy had trouble with "the vision thing," wait till you meet this one. For a Republican, not wanting to do much with government is practically a vision in itself. Trouble is, when you aren't particularly interested in the nuts and bolts of governing, you end up with staff-driven policy. When someone comes in to see you about the gory details of home health-care payments or jobtraining outreach, it's all very well to give a disarming gesture of "I give up," as Bush is wont to do, and announce, "I don't know a thing about it; you'll have to talk to So-and-So on my staff." Delegation is a many-splendored thing for any executive, but it only works if old So-and-So understands the problem himself and has any idea what you expect him to do about it.
To this end, it is helpful if you, the chief executive officer of the political entity, do not, as a regular thing, take a couple of hours off in the middle of the day to work out and play video games.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Shrub by Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose. . Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.