Interviews: Texas Politics: The Myth vs. the Reality

Paul Begala

Paul Stekler: Describe the history of Texas politics and the fall of the Democratic party.
Paul Begala: Yeah, when I was a kid, Texas was -- well, it was just like it is today. It was a very conservative state, distrustful of governmental power. But it was completely Democratic. It was a Democratic state. I mean, the county I grew up in, Fort Bend County, was the county that was taken to the Supreme Court in 1953 for holding a whites-only Democratic Primary. They didn't call it that. They had the Fort Bend County Jaybird Democrat Association. So it was a private organization. Only whites could participate in that organization. And they would then select a nominee. And -- that was always the Democrats. So, black people were cut out of it entirely. Hispanics were cut out of it entirely. And yet it was all Democrats. So while the Democrats were still the party of racial segregation, they did very, very well in Texas. All that switched in 1964. You know, Lyndon Johnson famously told, I think it was Bill Moyers, when he signed the Civil Rights Act, that he'd handed the South to the Republicans for a generation. And it turns out he underestimated. It's been about two generations now. Since the day he signed that law, since the day Lyndon Johnson put his name on the Civil Rights Act, there have been 10 presidential elections. Texas has gone Republican in 7 of them. The 10 presidential elections before that day, Texas went Democrat in 7 of them. So it seems to me, if you had to pick one thing, it would be race. And one moment, it was the moment when Lyndon Johnson, a Texan, switched his party in Texas from being a party of racism to being the party of civil rights. And it was the right thing to do historically, but it has ah, it has killed his party politically.

I think that the collapse of the Democratic Party in Texas does owe its roots to race. There were Democratic victories along the way. In 1982 the whole slate swept with Lloyd Bentsen and Bill Hobby leading the way, conservative Democrats, but very, very popular. Able politicians. In 1990, Ann Richards was able to win with her New Texas format. But, you know, those, I think we look at those historically now as the anomalies. I mean, just as before the Civil Rights Act Texas did go Republican twice under Eisenhower, but he was a war hero. And then once under Hoover, but that's 'cause he was running against a Catholic, Al Smith. So you can find these anomalies. And Ann's campaign was wonderful and historic and fantastic. But she still wouldn't have won if the Republican hadn't self-destructed. Clayton Williams that year was -- he's a very charismatic guy, but he turned out to be a bit of a joke and he self-destructed, allowing Ann then to waltz in. But Ann had a good 4 years. She never had to raise taxes. She had no scandals. And yet she got beat bad by a guy who'd never even been elected dog-catcher before. And so that, I think that tells you the strength of the Republican base now in Texas. It didn't have to happen that way. I do think that the Civil Rights movement set in place the conditions for that to occur. And on top of that, you had a rise of some very, very talented Republican candidates and Republican operatives, who then brought some discipline, were able to tap into that vast amount of Texas money, and set in place this Republican dominance that we have today. It's hegemony. It's absolute.

Stekler: What did Karl Rove have to do with the Republican takeover of Texas

Begala: You know, I'm a professional hyperbolist. Okay. I'm -- like all Texans, though. I think that's why I'm maybe naturally drawn to it. But I try to keep my hyperbole in check when I say to you that the dominance of the Republican Party in Texas today is attributable to one man. And that man is Karl Rove. Karl took a stable of candidates, some of them enormously talented, some of them real losers, and made them all winners. He was able to understand ideas, but also money. Just the raw power politics. He has a good sense of ideology and of coalition-building. And he was able to put that all together, and persuade politicians to do what he says. You know, having done this for a living, a whole lot of it is a bit of a confidence game. Can you get your candidate to actually say these things that you want. And that takes an enormous amount of skill too. And Karl brings that whole package to it. And he does it with a relentless and remorseless intensity that has really built this modern party. Now, without Karl Rove, would Republicans run Texas? Yeah, they'd probably have most of the offices. They'd probably be doing quite well because of the larger trends. But would they have every single seat in every single statewide office? No. No. So I give Karl an enormous amount of credit. He's a very gifted guy.

Stekler: Describe the culture and myths of Texas politics.

Begala: Texas has a unique political culture. There are few places in America that do, but mostly we're homogenized now. Louisiana, because it came from France and it's still under the Code Napoleon, has a unique culture. Hawaii does because it was its own country with its own king. But Texas is unique. There is this vast geography: 850 miles by 850 miles, two time zones, 19 media markets, this enormous population that's got to be close to 20 million now. And yet there is this kind of master myth. There's this governing myth that everybody buys into. And it's the frontier spirit. It's the sense of, I think, intense individuality, that really does give it a, a very strong political culture. And that culture is very conservative, and becoming increasingly conservative, I think, in the last 50 years, as people have become more comfortable with -- there are two different frontier myths. One is the myth of the rugged individualist. Striking out alone, not having big federal government regulations there to, you know, it was one lone cowboy on the prairie, one lone explorer going out to conquer the wilderness. That's the conservative myth. And then there's the myth of the wagon train. People all coming together. Yes, everybody had their own wagon. Some were big and some were small, some had nicer stuff in it, but they were all together and they all came out together. And when they found a spot they all pitched in to clear that spot of land to farm it. They all pitched in to build a little one-room schoolhouse and chipped in some money to hire a schoolmarm. They built each other's barns together. Well, it seems to me that, that's the liberal myth. And the liberal myth lost in Texas in the last 50 years and a conservative myth has won. And it's a very strongly conservative political culture.

Stekler: What is the significance of demographics in Texas politics

Begala: It's interesting. If the best Republicans spin they can come up with is that, "We got a third of the vote." They're losing two-thirds of the most important new sector of the electorate. That ain't good news. I think actually they're losing a lot more than two-thirds, but we can all plow through the numbers at some other time. The problem is, they won in 2002. And that was important tactically. But I think it will be deadly strategically. Going down the road, what will happen the next election, or the election after that, as a Hispanic vote grows, and people come to Hispanic voters, Democrats, and they say, do you remember Tony Sanchez? Do you remember that man whose integrity was so high that George W. Bush thought he was good enough to put in one of the most important jobs in state government? Whose money was so clean that George W. Bush took 400,000 dollars of it? Well, when it was Tony Sanchez's time to grab his piece of el sueno americano, what do they do? They trashed him. They attacked him, and they smeared him with racist and false charges that he was somehow tied to the drug trade. Now, if the Republicans will do that to a Democrat who supported them, like Tony Sanchez, what do you think they're going to do to you? If you support them today, and they want to stab you in the back tomorrow, they will use you and cast you aside, just the way they use Tony Sanchez and cast him aside. And I think that's a powerful message. I think it happens to be true.

Paul Begala is the co-host of CNN's Crossfire, a political debate program. Previously, Begala co-hosted a political talk show on MSNBC, and served as a counselor during the Clinton administration.