Candidates Matter: Speech To The Fort Bend County C Club

While it’s a happy occasion to be back with the Fort Bend C Club this afternoon, this message may sound somewhat pessimistic. Clare Boothe Luce, whom it was my special privilege to know in her final years, once said that the main difference between an optimist and a pessimist is that the pessimist is usually much better informed.

I am sure that if Tony Snow were once again before you or if Karl Rove were at this lectern, they could cheerfully reel off 18 flawless reasons why Republicans won’t simply win the fall elections but will do so by the greatest landslide in our history, amassing huge majorities in Congress and the state legislatures and even on the Madison (Wisconsin) board of county supervisors, cementing American politics in favor of conservatism for a generation.

But you don’t have to be particularly well informed to know that exactly the opposite is likely to hit us in November. I won’t dwell on what you see every day in the paper, on TV, or on the web: Dismal poll results for the GOP, even worse numbers for President Bush, paltry fundraising, and a string of defeats in special elections in congressional districts that Republicans have held for years. Today, I want to look to the future that the Fort Bend C Club will confront after November 4th and should prepare for. If Tony and Karl prove to be right and Untermeyer wrong, then I’ll eat a copy of these remarks with relish (or maybe salsa).

One thing I foresee is George W. Bush’s legacy as the 43d president of the United States. If we are not hit with a major terrorist attack between now and when he leaves office on January 20th, that legacy will be enshrined in four words: HE KEPT US SAFE. Against that legacy, all the controversies and furies of his administration – the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, waterboarding, a national debt in the trillions, Supreme Court appointments, Hurricane Katrina, civil liberty concerns, the decline of the dollar, and more – will fade into just so much political squabbling, typical of any president’s term.

I am also confident that President Bush’s reputation and regard will rise in years to come. This is for the simple reason that that’s what happens to former presidents, even those who were miserably unpopular while in the White House. Harry Truman’s poll numbers were even lower than George W’s, and yet today he would be a likely addition in any expansion of Mt Rushmore. The same was true of every subsequent president, including Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. Especially if one day Iraq becomes a stable democracy and the entire Middle East enters an era of freedom, social progress, and an Islam shorn of violent jihadism, I believe even Harvard historians will grudgingly have to admit it all began while George W. Bush was president.

Less cheery is what will happen to Bush’s party if John McCain fails to follow him into the Oval Office. I believe we’ll see a recurrence of what happened after Nixon lost to Kennedy in 1960 and after Gerald Ford lost to Carter in 1976: Conservatives will say it was because McCain was not conservative enough, and moderates will say it was because he went too far to the right and dismayed independents. I further predict that if McCain loses, the GOP will nominate an emphatically conservative candidate for president in 2012. The nominee may turn out to be more Barry Goldwater than Ronald Reagan at the polls, but if so, the succeeding years could be as fruitful to the long-term health of the conservative movement and the GOP as the late 1960’s were. I’ll speak to that in a moment.

No one has described the intramural Republican battle better than a Democrat, the humorous political writer and TV panelist Mark Shields. He wrote the following 25 years ago, but it still reads well today.

The GOP, Shields said, is “split into two separate and warring camps: the ‘Skins’ and the ‘Shirts’. The Skins, with their major following in the West and the South, opposed outright what the New Deal and the Great Society proposed, branding those Democratic designs as unnecessary, probably unconstitutional, and surely un-American. By contrast, the Shirts, with their strength in the Northeast and upper Midwest and including in their camp most descendants of the Mayflower passengers, did not reject the New Deal in its entirety. The Shirts’ line was: ‘We could have done what had to be done at 10 percent off and with people who went to better prep schools.’”

Now, if you are a Shirt or have Shirt-like tendencies, you may view messing it up with the Skins (not to mention the Democrats) as a distasteful business not worth your time, your trouble, your money, or your reputation. This is a perfectly understandable and reasonable position: Politics, they say, especially in Texas, is a contact sport, and few of us relish having cleat marks inserted into our persons while knocked on our backsides. If so, you are not unlike the Manhattan gentry whom the young Theodore Roosevelt approached in 1880, when he wanted to run for the New York state legislature.

In his autobiography, TR said: “When I began to make inquiries as to the whereabouts of the local Republican Association and the means of joining it, these men – and the big business men and lawyers also – laughed at me and told me that politics were ‘low’; that the organizations were not controlled by ‘gentlemen’; [and] that I would find them run by saloon-keepers, horsecar conductors and the like…. I answered that if this were so, it merely meant that the people I knew did not belong to the governing class and that the other people did – and that I intended to be one of the governing class.”

The very fact you are here today and have chosen to join the Fort Bend C Club shows that you intend to be one of the governing class, or at least to have a voice in determining who does the governing. Poll numbers may be grim, certain office-holders and candidates may be uninspiring, and the folks I once called SQUIRRELS – Snarky Quibblers who Undermine and Ignore Ronald Reagan’s Enduring Legacy – may have won a tussle or two in the primaries. But you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t eager for the challenge. Henry Adams wrote that “practical politics consists of ignoring facts”, and there are plenty of facts that you’ll need to ignore as you go forward to elect good people to local, state, and national office.

One thing you have going for you is the attitude of ordinary voters, particular the kind of people who live in communities like this, when it comes to politics and politicians. Only a few of them come at public issues with a fixed ideology, either of the right or the left. Even fewer throw their beliefs in your face, like the bumper stickers you’re sometimes forced to read on the rear of the car in front of you at a stoplight. Instead, ordinary citizens care much more whether their elected officials pay attention to the very real issues that affect them every day and whether these officials come at those issues with an open, reasoning mind. They see ideologues, liberals and conservatives alike, as the cause of, not the solution to, problems in government.

Several years ago, a couple of political scientists, Ann and Scott Greer, did a study called “Suburban Political Behavior: A Matter of Trust”. They said that such politics depend more on “value representation” than “issue representation”. Reviewing their work, the eminent Washington Post political reporter David Broder wrote: “It is a highly personalized approach, depending on the establishment of a relationship of confidence between the individual voter and the individual office seeker. As long as the candidate appears to be open, honest, accessible, and hardworking, his constituents are likely to be tolerant … of the instances in which his votes deviate from their predominant beliefs. What they most seek and cherish in their politicians is a sense of professional competence and independence.”

In a local context, what the Greers found could be called the Bill White Effect. Your neighbor, the mayor of Houston, is a thoroughgoing Democrat, certainly to the left of everyone in this room. He is the ex-state chairman of his party, a personal friend and admirer of Bill and Hillary Clinton, a proud former member of their administration, and a man who has not discouraged speculation that he may seek the Democratic nomination for governor (or maybe US senator) at the next opportunity. Yet Bill White has become extremely popular among many people – not all, but many – whose socio-economic profile would make them seem unlikely to support a moderate-to-liberal Democrat for anything.

The fact that municipal office in Houston, as pretty much everywhere in Texas, is officially nonpartisan helps Mayor White do this. But the main reason that many prosperous Anglo Republicans are Bill White fans is because they think he is smart, professional, and hardworking. They admire his business-like, non-ideological, and un-shrill approach to solving city problems. They applaud his apparent success in doing so. He has reached across party lines to members of City Council who are Republicans in county, state and national politics. Pleased that a mayor wants to involve them rather than isolate them, these Republican council members haven’t hesitated to praise the name of Bill White and to join their Democratic colleagues in passing his measures.

Now, whether such attitudes can travel to places like Tyler, Victoria, and Lubbock is problematic for the mayor. That could be the subject of another speech on another day. The key point I want to make is that what White has done can work for others. In fact, it can work just as well for conservatives who serve or who seek to serve voters who don’t share – indeed, reject – the philosophy of a Ronald Reagan or a George W. Bush.

As I discovered while a state legislator representing a very diverse mid-Harris County district, if the candidate or officeholder is willing and able to explain his position on a particular issue, he has a good chance of winning, not losing, votes in the next election, even if voters disagree with him. The chances aren’t 100%, but they well above zero. This is a truth that is counter-intuitive to the sort of politician who frets whether every action he takes will win or lose votes back home, those who try to operate in a Clintonian fashion. It is a truth that can truly set the politician free – free to cast votes consistent with his or her beliefs and, more likely than not, survive to vote again in subsequent terms.

This is the kind of candidate I suggest that the Fort Bend C Club should encourage to run for office and to support. Of course they should be conservative – but conservative in philosophy more than ideology. What is the difference?

The philosophical conservative has a bedrock set of values that are used to weigh and decide on public issues. The late William F. Buckley said that “conservatism implies a certain submission to reality,” and the reality of voting on bills before a legislature is that they don’t neatly conform to campaign-brochure bullet points. Never do conservative lawmakers get to vote on a measure that says, “Be it enacted by this body that taxes are cut, wasteful spending eliminated, and the border protected.”

The ideological conservative is one who feels that such bullet points are all he needs, that he can safely stop thinking once he reads (or at least owns) a particular book or listens to a particular talk show host. Such people are quick to assail fellow conservatives for political impurity on fairly mechanical rather than philosophical things, like one of many hundred votes cast during a legislative session or an answer to a questionnaire.

The modern conservative era dawned in 1966, two years after Barry Goldwater’s stupendous defeat caused most political journalists to write off both his movement and his party. Nineteen Sixty-six was the year Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California, when Senator John Tower won a full term in Texas, and when George Bush went to Congress along with dozens of other young, vigorous, and articulate Republicans from around the country. They shared Goldwater’s basic beliefs but, unlike him, were able to sell them to the same voters who only two years before had given Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats their greatest triumph since the New Deal.

The difference was not one of philosophy but of approach, of style, and of old-fashioned campaigning. Candidates matter, because we Americans vote for flesh-and-blood individuals, not (as in Europe) for parties based on their manifestoes. A poor candidate armed with the most stirring and sterling set of conservative principles will lose. And the good candidate who can win and put those principles to work in office is one whom ordinary voters find trustworthy, candid, and dedicated.

I am confident that the Fort Bend C Club knows who such people are and, if not, can go find them in a community as dynamic, diverse, and talented as this one. Then comes the task of electing those people, the practical business of politics.

Of this, George Will was moved to write on the eve of the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency that, “As much as I pity those people who have never known democracy, I pity Americans whose souls are dead to the poetry of our politics, the generally civilized and civilizing churning of a great nation. However much our campaigns may at times seem to trivialize politics, they have an essential dignity, inherent and indestructible, because through them a great people conducts the peaceful disposition not just of power but of authority…. That act, viewed against the tapestry of history, is a social miracle, nothing less.”

You have heard that “poetry of our politics” and have chosen to march to its cadence. In this I wish you well. It is a noble cause.

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