November 10, 2002
Looking forward: The message

Texas is a conservative state. That was the case when the Democrats ruled the land, and it's the case now that the GOP is in control.

That doesn't mean that a progressive candidate can't be successful at the state level. People like Ann Richards and Jim Hightower have been elected in still-recent memory, after all.

It helped, of course, that Richards and Hightower are Texan through and through. They look, sound, and act like natives who hold their home state in high esteem, which is exactly what they are. The first rule of statewide politics is simple: Whatever your message is, it has a much better chance of getting through if most people think you're one of us.

Still, many issues near and dear to liberal hearts are big fat losers on a statewide level. Gay rights, affirmative action, reproductive choice - in most cases if it plays well in New York and California, it won't play well here. Unless you're in a super-safe district like Sheila Jackson Lee, don't even think about the death penalty or gun control.

We're not going to elect any champions of these causes, but if we play it carefully we can at least elect people who won't be enemies of them. What I have in mind is to emphasize an area where I believe the Republicans will be vulnerable. This will help provide cover for candidates whose views on social issues would might otherwise be a liability for them.

The key to success lies in bread and butter issues. Pretty much all of it flows from the budget and the multibillion dollar deficit that looms for next year's legislative session. Progressives need to make the case that the Republicans have been anything but conservative on financial matters. New ideas and forward thinking are needed to get us out of this mess.

The Republicans have all of the statewide offices, and thanks to their redistricting efforts, control of both state houses, including the Speaker of the State House. They will have little wriggle room, as the state constitution requires a balanced budget.

In short, any fallout resulting from the upcoming budget battle must be made to fall on their shoulders. Remind everyone that when times were good, Governor Bush pushed through a large tax cut instead of making any allowances for lean times in the future. Governor Perry has done nothing to change this.

Of course, as we know, it's not enough to point out the other guy's shortcomings. You need to have a positive plan to go along with the criticism. With one exception (more on that in a minute), the Texas budget is already bare bones. There's hardly anyplace to cut, certainly no place that won't be extremely painful and even dangerous. Someone needs to bite the bullet and call for at least a partial repeal of the tax cuts that Bush made in 1997 and 1999.

That may sound suicidal, but outgoing Republican Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff (who is returning to his Senate post) has already warned about the possible need to raise taxes. It's on the table, despite its pointed absence from the governor's race. If the Democrats are smart, they will spin this as an inevitable consequence of irresponsible fiscal behavior on the part of the GOP.

There is one place where Texas spends more money than the average state, and it gives rise to a different opportunity for progressives. Here's a chart that was in a Chron article (now archived) from October 14:

State budget experts warn that it's difficult to scrub a bare-bones budget. Slashing the Texas budget could produce dramatic cuts in services. Texas' national ranking in 10 categories:

Category .. Rank

Overall spending per capita .. 50

Mental health .. 47

Cash welfare .. 48

Corrections .. 17

Highways .. 42

Public health .. 45

Parks and Recreation .. 48

State employee wages .. 50

Education .. 37

Public welfare and Medicaid .. 46

Only in corrections is Texas above average in spending. I would strongly push for reform of sentencing laws for nonviolent and drug offenders. I would push treatment and counseling as a cheaper and more effective option. I would even advocate the release of many such inmates on the grounds that it would enable cuts in the corrections budget without endangering employees who also have to deal with the violent offenders.

The key here is to make this a financial argument. We can deal with drug users in a less expensive and more efficient way by not incarcerating most of them. This in turn will help us avoid cuts in services we really need. This case has to be made on fiscal grounds or else you will be tarred as soft on crime.

For future Congressional candidates, the message about finances and the budget should be paramount. Make the charge that the Republicans have abandoned any claim to being the party of fiscal responsibility. Make the point that President Bush's vaunted tax cut won't make any difference to most people, and thus repealing most or all of it in order to help balance the budget again won't hurt them. The budget deficit is likely to be an Achilles heel to Republicans around here. Remember Ross Perot and the crazy aunt that no one talks about? Two more years of deficits will make this a hot issue again.

Clay Robison talks a little about this today. The only comment I can make about his backhanded slap at Bill Clinton in the last paragraph is that it's consistent with the Chron's editorial policy of never saying anything unequivocally positive about the man.

In summary, the message is getting our finances in order. We must ensure an appropriate level of revenue to pay for the government's obligations. We must spend the money that we are obligated to spend wisely. We believe that people with a progressive and forward-thinking outlook are best suited to do this.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 10, 2002 to Election 2002 | TrackBack

Drug treatment and counseling is only cheaper than incarceration if it is very, very bad. Under normal conditions it will likely be more expensive than simply putting them in jail for 18 months, or however long the average sentence is. The truth is that this has never been a good way of saving money. In the long run, it may even cost more.

Posted by: Owen Courrèges on November 11, 2002 12:16 PM