updated 7/15/2008 7:14:34 PM ET 2008-07-15T23:14:34

Texas is a nation-sized state, one of four to have been an independent republic (the others are California, Vermont and Hawaii) and the one that stuck to it the longest. It is a state with an international image and international impact. The nation has voted for president 11 times since 1960: four times it has elected Californians and four times Texans. These two largest states have put their stamp on national politics in our times, just as New York did up from 1900 to 1960, when it was the residence of five of the winners and eight of the losers in 15 elections. Texas has been the second-largest state in area since Alaska was admitted to the Union in 1959; it became the second-largest in population in 1994, when it passed New York. The key to Texas’s history is that this is a society with no aristocratic past, a state not formed by plantation owners or plutocrats but by dirt farmers. Texas was founded by Southerners, particularly Tennesseans, who wanted to establish their own republic in what were empty spaces within the borders of Mexico, a republic with Anglo-Saxon freedoms and black slavery. They defended their dream to the death at the Alamo and to a bloody victory at San Jacinto; they entered the Union willingly in 1845 and left it enthusiastically in 1861. The Texas that emerged from the Civil War was still young and poor; it was only in 1901 that oil was discovered at Spindletop, and the Texas wildcatters made their first fortunes.

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Without the underpinnings and burdens of tradition, 20th century Texas produced fabulous wealth, generously rewarding success while being unforgiving of failure. It has respect for learning and style—think of its great universities, or Neiman Marcus—and it revels in rough manners and western wear. Texans are prone to wild swings in fortune—think of Sam Houston, or the great wildcatters, or Lyndon B. Johnson. And as the 20th century ended, Texans, for all their history of slavery and segregation, have proved open to immigrants and friendly with their neighbors in Mexico. NAFTA, the opening up of the border and the coming together of these two countries which are at such different economic levels and have such different cultures, is a project mainly of Texans of both political parties, of President George H. W. Bush and Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, Governors Ann Richards and George W. Bush. At the same time, Texas has become a high-tech powerhouse, a country with some of the nation’s most creative businesses. But its success is not just economic. There are large elements of heroism—some mythical, some genuine—in the Texas history that every grade and high school student here learns.

Texas started off as a marchland on the border of the Third World, with an economy based on commodities, mainly cotton, whose prices were in long-term decline. Its farmers felt like part of a colonial economy controlled by bankers and Wall Street financiers. After Spindletop, Texas became the nation’s—and for a time the world’s—leading producer of oil. But oil prices, too, fell in free markets, and were propped up by politicians—the 1936 “hot oil” act that Sam Rayburn, as chairman of the House Commerce Committee, pushed through and the oil depletion allowance maintained for years by Rayburn when he was speaker, Senate Majority Leader Johnson, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bentsen and others. These politicians also got subsidies for cotton growers and contracts for defense plants and space facilities in World War II and through the long years of the Cold War. Most Texas voters stayed Democratic up to 1970 because of Confederate memories, New Deal affections and the clout and competence of Texas’s Democratic politicians.

But as Texas’s economy became complex and creative, Texas’s politics changed from a mostly Democratic effort to prop up the price of commodities to an increasingly Republican push to open up markets. By the 1970s Texas’s economy was no longer dependent on raw commodities. The “awl bidness” here is less a matter of extracting oil from Texas; instead, Texas has the greatest concentration of high-skill specialists in extracting oil and natural gas in any part of the world. Also, beginning in the 1960s Texas has become a center for high tech, with the critical mass of knowledge and finances needed to produce firms like Texas Instruments and Dell Computer, and a university infrastructure in the University of Texas and Texas A&M to match the highway system that ties the state together. The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex is rich with defense contractors and with small firms that have become large with exports to Mexico. Houston is home to firms like Schlumberger, to many of the high-tech spinoffs from the space program, and to the enormous Texas Medical Center. San Antonio, with the Air Force’s prime hospital, has significant medical technology and biotech industries. Austin, as UT doubled its number of engineering professors, became a high-tech center vying for second place after Silicon Valley in California; in 2006 Samsung announced it would build a $4 billion computer memory chip plant there. Texas state courts, once a happy hunting ground for trial lawyers, have been transformed by changes in tort law passed by the legislature in 1995 and 2003, while the federal court in Marshall, Texas, thanks to a fast discovery process and the willingness of juries to bring in big verdicts against patent violators, has become one of the nation’s prime venues for patent cases. Texas’s low taxes (and lack of a state income tax) helped attract corporate headquarters like American Airlines, GTE, J.C. Penney and Exxon. Oil is just a small part of the Texas economy now. As a result Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston have moved on the list of the top ten metro areas ahead of old industrial centers like Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, and in the process of overtaking Philadelphia and San Francisco and will stand behind only New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Texas has surged ahead despite the crash of oil prices in the early 1980s and the savings and loan crisis in the late 1980s, the defense cuts of the early 1990s and the WTO ruling against cotton subsidies in 2005. Job growth has been double the national average and Texas exports more goods to other countries than any other state. Growth has been most rapid in the exurban counties at the edges of its big big metro areas; between 2000 and 2006, populations have risen 30% in Collin County north of Dallas, 28% in Fort Bend County west of Houston, 29% in Williamson County north of Austin and 23% in Comal County northeast of San Antonio. Rural counties in West Texas, like so many in the Great Plains to the north, have been emptying out, but there has been steady growth in much of East Texas and rapid growth on the Lower Rio Grande from Laredo to Brownsville. Texas has surged in part because, in vivid contrast to that other onetime republic, California, it has nurtured and profited from its relationship with its southern neighbor, Mexico. California has shown its scorn, disgust and, worst of all, indifference to Mexico; it has portrayed its southern neighbor as generating illegal aliens and criminals California taxpayers must pay for; both its right and its left have done little to assimilate Mexican-Americans and other Latinos into a united America. Texas has taken a different course. Its border with Mexico is longer, some 1,200 miles long, and more often crossed; southern Texas along the Rio Grande is a transition zone between two very different economies. Despite a history of racial segregation, Texas has shown a friendly face to Mexicans, while Mexican immigrants have shown they wanted to become Texans and Americans. Fewer Latinos have crossed the border here to take advantage of welfare programs, which are much less generous in Texas than in California. Political leadership has made a difference. Governor George W. Bush, like Governor Ann Richards before him, journeyed often to Mexico and invited Mexican leaders to Texas, emphasizing the positive in public and leaving any negative details to private negotiations. Governor Rick Perry, who prepared for his office by taking Spanish lessons, has followed Richards’s and Bush’s lead. So, increasingly, has the Texas economy. Nearly half of U.S. merchandise exports to Mexico are from Texas, significantly more than California; 70% of U.S. exports to Mexico go through Texas. The NAFTA secretariat of labor is in Dallas, the North American Development Bank is headquartered in San Antonio, the Border Environmental Cooperation Commission is in Juarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, and the busiest truck crossing between the countries is the new World Trade Bridge near Laredo and Nuevo Laredo. The only thing marring the relationship was a recently-settled dispute over the distribution of Rio Grande water.

Texas is proud of its history and requires a year of Texas history in its high schools. But it also stands as a model for the American future, a model admired by many and disparaged by others. In 1845, when the Republic of Texas was annexed by the United States, New Englander Edward Everett Hale wrote a pamphlet entitled “How to Conquer Texas Before It Conquers Us,” calling for emigration from the North to dilute “an unprincipled population of adventurers.” But the newcomers joining ancestral Texans—think of the Bushes—have put the stamp of Texas on the whole United States. Texas is an open society, unpretentious, liberated from its heritage of racial and ethnic discrimination. It has a vast and rapidly growing economy. It presents a contrast with and a challenge to the traditions of other megastates—New York which pioneered the American welfare state, California with its high taxes and liberal social policies, the Great Lakes industrial states with their big labor unions. For Texas has some of the lowest taxes in the country and some of the lowest welfare levels; it has few union members and a relatively small public sector; it has resisted court-ordered moves to equalize spending among school districts; it continues to be a violent state, with a high crime rate and the highest number of executions. For years, liberals outside and inside Texas have called on the state to become more like New York or California or Michigan. But most Texans prefer their own model and over the past dozen years those states have in some respects been trying to become more like Texas.

Politically, Texas is now an indisputably Republican state: George W. Bush carried it 59%-38% in 2000 and 61%-38% in 2004. It was not always so: both George Bushes, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and former Senator Phil Gramm each lost an election before they started winning. One-party Democratic dominance ended in the 1960s, and for two decades Democratic victories were largely the product of Lloyd Bentsen, when he was on the ballot in 1970, 1976, 1982 and 1988 and when he exerted his influence for Ann Richards for governor in 1990. Metro Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston were the first parts of Texas to go Republican, and Bentsen relied on Democratic strength in the Texas countryside to win. But that is a thing of the past. George W. Bush carried 230 of 254 counties in 2000 and 236 in 2004; he carried rural Texas, outside the four big metro areas and the Rio Grande border country 65%-33% in 2000 and 66%-33% in 2004. At the same time, Republicans have retained a strong hold on the big metro areas: in 2004 the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex voted 62%-38% for Bush and metro Houston 58%-41%. Bush also carried metro San Antonio 59%-40% and, despite increased anti-Bush voting in the university precincts of Austin, he carried metro Austin 49.3%-48.9%. The border counties, heavily Hispanic, voted 58%-40% against Bush in 2000; he reduced that margin to 52%-48% in 2004.

Republicans now hold all 29 statewide elective offices, including all seats on the state Supreme Court. They have majorities in both houses of the legislature. The Republican Speaker of the House, Tom Craddick, is from Midland, the Permian Basin town in the west Texas desert which is also the hometown of George W. Bush, Laura Bush, former Commerce Secretary Donald Evans and General Tommy Franks. Who in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when they were all in Midland public schools, imagined that this one small town (there were 25,000 people in Midland County in 1950 and 67,000 in 1960) would produce so many leaders?

There are two threats to this Republican dominance. The first is the inevitable increase in the number of Latino voters. In 2000, 32% of Texas residents were Hispanic; more than half of Texas’s population increase in the 1990s was accounted for by the increase in the number of Hispanics. To be sure, very many of these people are not U.S. citizens, and many who are citizens do not vote. White House political strategist Karl Rove has long been aware that Republicans must win a large share of the Latino vote if they are to remain dominant in the state. George W. Bush has cultivated Latino voters, starting in 1994 when he had little chance of reducing Ann Richards’s margins among them; in 1998 the two exit polls showed him winning 49% and 39% of Hispanic votes. In 2000 the VNS exit poll showed Al Gore carrying Texas Hispanics 54%-42%. But in 2004 the NEP exit poll showed Bush winning 49% of Hispanic votes, just behind John Kerry’s 50%, and he carried three heavily Hispanic congressional districts. West Texas rural counties where Hispanics are 30% to 50% of the population voted 2–1 and 3–1 for Bush, but it’s not clear how many Hispanics there voted. Not all Republicans will do as well with Hispanics as Bush. But it seems unlikely that they will be an overwhelmingly Democratic bloc as Texas blacks have been—and in 2004 Bush increased his share of votes among Texas blacks according to NEP from 5% to 17%. In 2006 Governor Rick Perry won only 31% of the Hispanic vote, but Republican Carole Keeton Strayhorn, running as an Independent, got 18%, and together they got more than Democrat Chris Bell’s 41%. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison got 44% of the Hispanic vote and ran nearly even in the Border area.

The other threat to Republican dominance is the very fact that Republicans are plainly in control, in a position to be held responsible for any failures in public policy or ethics. In October 2003, U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Speaker Tom Craddick and Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst slammed through a bill redrawing Texas’s 32 congressional districts that was as partisan a gerrymander as the Democrats’ 1991 plan. As a result, Texas’s House delegation, which was 17–15 Democratic after the 2002 election, was 21–11 Republican after the 2004 election. That produced negative feedback in the form of indictments by Austin District Attorney Ronnie Earle of three of DeLay’s allies on campaign finance charges. DeLay resigned as Majority Leader and then resigned from Congress in June 2006, but a judge blocked Republicans from picking another candidate, and Democrats won that seat on November 7 and a South Texas seat, redistricted by another court ruling, in a November runoff. Democrats also gained seats in the state House, but were still far from a majority.

On substantive issues, Governor Rick Perry and the now solidly Republican legislature faced difficult choices in early 2005 on the budget, school finance and state water policy. And Republicans faced intraparty fights. In the 1960s and 1970s divisive fights between conservative and liberal Democrats gave Republicans openings to capture statewide office, as Senator John Tower did in 1961 and Governor Bill Clements in 1978. Now divisive fights between more or less conservative Republicans may give Democrats similar openings. Texas politics is played for keeps, but it doesn’t stand still.

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