Monday, March 29, 2010
I wouldn't trust David Axelrod as far as I could throw him, but especially not on anything involving dinner
A Reuters report from yesterday printed in the WaPo quotes White House senior advisor David Axelrod as insisting that the Obama Administration was not snubbing Israel or Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when Obama ducked out of their White House meeting to eat dinner — without offering Netanyahu so much as a package of saltine crackers:
"This was a working meeting among friends. And so there was no snub intended," White House senior adviser David Axelrod told CNN's State of the Union news program.
Axelrod noted that the two leaders had met in private for two hours and had better things to do with their time than worry about protocol.
However, my own White House sources, which are extremely unreliable, assure me that the real explanation for why Bibi got bupkis is that Axelrod had already eaten the hamburger intended for the Prime Minister — an unfortunate incident which resulted in Axelrod offering to gladly pay Netanyahu back for the hamburger next Tuesday.
Seriously, this is unfortunately typical of the Obama White House's treatment of our allies. First Obama embraces America's enemies. Then he insults our best friends. And then he (or his proxies like Axelrod) insist that the insults somehow don't count because, well, ummm, because, ummm, who cares about protocol? Yeah, who cares about protocol when we're in the midst of a big, artificially contrived spat with Israel over the propriety of Israel announcing new construction in Jerusalem while Biden was visiting, which was, you know, an important matter of ... protocol?
Sunday, March 28, 2010
History repeating itself as tragic farce
Bill Kristol's op-ed in today's WaPo is premised on the same historical comparison that I made in my February post entitled Iran, Obama, and the 1936 reoccupation of the Rhineland. His bottom line is that despite the rhetoric from SecState Clinton, the Obama Administration has already effectively resigned itself to an Iranian nuke. As legislators sometimes say for the record, "I respectfully associate myself with his remarks," or as they say in talk radio, "Ditto."
Saturday, March 13, 2010
Be more worried about the amount of federal debt than who holds the debt instruments
Bruce Bartlett has a pretty well-balanced but simple article in Forbes online in which he attempts to answer this question: "Is America's foreign-owned national debt a threat to the U.S. economy?" I agree with both parts of what I understand to be his overall conclusion: The skyrocketing amount of the national debt is an enormous threat to the American economy and, indeed, to America's prosperity and way of life. But there is much less reason, and indeed not very much reason overall, to be concerned that foreign powers, including China, are so heavily invested in American debt securities.
Bartlett does a nice job of clarifying recent changes to both the gross size of the federal debt and the percentage that's foreign-owned one upshot of which is that a surprising amount, indeed slightly more than half, of the debt instruments (chiefly long-term federal bonds) cumulatively representing that indebtedness are still owned domestically. He explains how China's concentration of ownership represents a deliberate decision by China's central government policymakers to artificially depress the Chinese yuan against the American dollar, which in turn makes Chinese exports relatively less expensive and imports to China relatively more.
As far as generally quantifying the risks of Chinese or other foreign ownership, Bartlett also briefly explains that if the Chinese, or any other large debt holder, were suddenly to dump their U.S. debt security holdings — to liquidate them in the proverbial "fire sale" through open-market transactions with the proverbial "willing buyer [at some price]" — that might well cause a rise in the interest rates America would have to pay on future borrowings. That rising interest rate would of course make our borrowing more expensive, and I don't mean to trivialize the potential damage from that.
The Chinese are probably not unhappy at the prospect that with their relatively safe investment comes some latent and theoretical political power. Sure, it's a plus for them to the extent that there are any scenarios in which they could damage U.S. economic interests. But as Bartlett also notes, those scenarios could only play out if the Chinese were willing to simultaneously absorb huge and probably irreplaceable losses to the principal of their main governmental investment of wealth.
Just how big the impact would be, and how few or many interest rate points would be added, would depend on the spread in the distress sale, along with the availability and eagerness of other buyers. For rational economic actors, interest rates correlate with risk; and unless (or at least until) there is huge structural damage to the American economy, the risk of the U.S. government defaulting on paying its bonds is still lower than that of any other government with remotely the borrowing capacity we have. Indeed, the willingness of the Chinese government, and of other foreign investors who aren't bound by political strings to the Chinese, to continue buying American debt instruments even with almost no interest (and sometimes with an effective negative yield to maturity) during the last couple of years reflects a "flight to quality" in the international investment community. All of this suggests that their are serious intrinsic self-limits to the power of even a meddlesome and spendthrift rival to run up the interest rates on our government debt.
No, the main reason the Chinese — and other foreign investors — have bought into U.S. debt securities so heavily is that they're still the safest and most conservative investment out there. If that changes, we've got big problems all right — but they're not problems limited to, or particularly caused by, the percentage of foreign ownership of our debt instruments.
I might quibble by arguing that Bartlett ignores one specific aspect of the nature of the risk, however. Specifically, in international finance, nation-state players may behave differently from the rational profit-maximizers in classical capitalist theory. We can't make the mistake of presuming that the Chinese will never act contrary to their objective economic self-interests; indeed, for an example of a government which does that routinely, one need look only to neighboring North Korea. There are lots of hypothetical scenarios under which the Chinese could plausibly be imagined to find adequate non-economic reasons to justify incurring those economic costs. And there are somewhat comparable examples in recent history. (Recall, for example, Middle Eastern oil producing companies' sacrifice of short-term profits during the oil embargoes of the 1970s.)
That the Chinese have some sort of power to influence the American economy isn't exclusively a function of their buying our debt instruments, however, but rather is an inevitable function of the sheer size of the other economic transactions going on between China and the rest of the world, most notably including us. If sufficiently motivated to abandon its own economic self-interests in the process, any country of major economic significance could, theoretically, find other ways to damage our economy that didn't involve debt instruments. We wouldn't be immune from rough treatment, in other words, even if we didn't borrow any money from any foreign countries.
In the process of explaining that China's use of its power would carry high costs, Bartlett or his editors stumbled very badly with this stinker of a sentence, however, and in the process omitted a fairly important point:
Further complicating the issue is the fact that the Chinese now own so many Treasury bonds that they are really in the position of being a company's largest shareholder.
Well, no, that's not at all right — not even if we indulge in the useful fiction that in this borrowing transaction, the U.S. government is functioning like a private company. And it's a mistake that feeds into an irrational and unfounded fear, specifically the fear that by buying up our Treasury bonds or other debt instruments, the Chinese might acquire a direct say in what our government does. Such fears ignore the fundamental difference between debt and equity.
A company's largest shareholder is not much at all like its largest bondholder. He who buys a company's bonds gets to stand at the front of the line, ahead of equity holders (like shareholders), if there's a forced liquidation of the company and a distribution of its net assets. But in exchange, the bond holder generally has to forfeit all rights to participate in the management of the company's business unless and until there's a default by the company on its promise to repay according to the terms of the bond. And the caselaw says that companies owe all sorts of fiduciary and other unwritten, vague, but powerful duties to shareholders, whereas companies own nothing more to their debt holders than the precise minimums to which the companies are specifically committed by explicit written contractual promises to the bondholders.
Indeed, federal debt securities don't even include the kinds of negative covenants and restrictions that encumber many private debt offerings. They're not much more than a minimal "IOU," and that sublime simplicity is a fundamental attribute of that kind of investment opportunity.
No matter how many Treasury bonds China buys, it can't somehow "convert" those into a right to cast votes in the U.S. Senate or to give instructions to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The holder of an American federal bond has a contractual right, enforceable against the U.S. government under its own laws and in its own courts, to repayment of principal and payment of interest on the exact terms specified in the bond. And that's all it has.
Viewed from another angle: The risks discussed above — that China or other current holders might "dump" their holdings, and that China or other potential future investors may refuse to buy without higher interest payments — are essentially built into the terms of the deal, but the trade-off for this kind of borrowing is that it comes without further strings attached. The bondholder may have to stand silent, grinding his teeth, while the borrower runs the business into the ground, but until there's a default, there's nothing the bondholder can do; unlike an aggregation of the shareholders sufficient to represent a majority, the bondholder has no right to replace the management, and hence the bondholder has only minimal and largely theoretical influence over that management. Until the bond's due date, so long as any required periodic interest is being paid, the bondholder's decision tree remains bleak and binary: Hold or sell.
You or I, or General Motors, can't get those kinds of favorable lending terms because we can't justify the same credit rating, in essence, that the U.S. government gets. Lenders want us to put up collateral; they want us to make all kinds of promises about what we will or won't do that might affect our ability to repay. The day may come when the U.S. government can no longer get such favorable terms, either. (Russia, which defaulted on its national debt just before the millennium, certainly can't.) But in assessing the risks — and the limits to the risks — of having foreign governments investing heavily in America's debt instruments, we ought take such comfort as we legitimately can in the fact that our national choices remain, for the present, mostly unconstrained despite the massive debt that Obama and his cronies have already gotten us into. There's already ample cause for concern, and indeed there is already more than ample cause for immediate change (e.g., a return to annual deficits measures increments of less than a quarter-trillion, just for a start). But don't panic, yet, about the Chinese in particular holding so many of our bonds. In any fair prioritization of our national problems, that one is neither one of the biggest nor the most urgent.
Thursday, March 04, 2010
Beldar on Fund on Perry's success in "nationalizing" a state race
With a sub-head reading "Texas governor Rick Perry's victory last night shows that nationalizing local races can work," John Fund of the Wall Street Journal yet another analyst whose work and opinions I respect greatly wrote this yesterday afternoon about Tuesday's Texas primary results:
The late House Speaker Tip O'Neill once said "all politics is local." Texas Governor Rick Perry won last night's GOP primary by standing that adage on its head and nationalizing the race. He pounded his main rival, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, as a Washington insider and tagged her as "Kay Bailout" for her support of the 2008 rescue of major financial institutions.
Mr. Perry said the results were a triumph for conservative principles: "Texas voters said 'no." They said 'no' to Washington bureaucrats making decisions that state leaders and citizens should be making for themselves." He won 51% of the vote, with Tea Party activist Debra Medina pulling in another 18% of the vote. By avoiding a runoff, Mr. Perry put himself in a good position to take on former Houston Mayor Bill White in the fall.
I agree with that as far as it goes, but perhaps aided by the sub-headline, which Mr. Fund probably didn't write there may be an implication that the same tactic of "nationalizing" a statewide race can work for Perry against Bill White in the general election, too. I'm not convinced of that, although I think it's certain that Perry will indeed try to make that happen.
As I've written repeatedly recently, I'm quite sure that Perry is going to do his very best to try to keep the focus not on Bill White's performance as Houston's (nominally nonpartisan) mayor, but on his service as Bill Clinton's Undersecretary of Energy. I've known Bill since the late 1970s when we were at Texas Law School together, and he's always been a mainstream Democrat, and he had a long-standing professional interest (even passion) on the topic of energy (and particularly natural gas) regulation even before he went to law school. Given that, I was utterly unsurprised to see him show up in that post. But I don't claim to know much about what he did in it much less any specific things he did that would be particularly sensitive or objectionable if reconsidered now in the context of a Texas gubernatorial race. Nevertheless, for me, the mere fact that he was "one of them" a "Clintonista," a committed Democrat, a volunteer and not a draftee would be ample all by itself to prompt me to withhold my vote for him in any state-wide or federal election.
I'd guess that not many of the Houstonians who voted to elect or re-elect White as mayor knew about his service in the Clinton Administration. I'd further guess that for that purpose, i.e., the mayoral race most of them didn't care, and for that purpose, I didn't either. But being governor is different than being mayor. There are quite a few conservative Texans who, like me, consider themselves Republicans and believe in the two-party political system instead of believing in empty, ridiculously insincere promises about "crossing the aisle" and "being bipartisan" like that's actually going to happen when it comes time for the 2011 redistricting, hah! White isn't going to get our votes for governor, regardless of how good a mayor he was, as long as he's a Democrat. (And yes, he is one.)
White is, however, objectively the best qualified and most attractive candidate the Dems have run in a state-wide race in more than a decade. He's going to get pretty much all of the Dem votes that are out there. White's going to benefit, oddly enough, from the fact that Barack Obama isn't on the ballot in 2010, because if Obama were, that fact alone would drive a huge surge of Texas conservatives to the polls for the sole purpose of voting against Obama. (I frankly suspect this was a factor in White's decision to switch to the 2010 governor's race instead of following his original post-mayoral plan to run for U.S. Senate in 2012.) White will easily pick up, then, most of the "reliable" Democrat votes, and he has enormous incentives to invest in targeted "get out the vote" activities from now until November.
Texas still being a red state, however, that won't be enough. White can't win unless he can persuade, and then motivate to vote, a sizable contingent from the "middle" and yes, there is a vague and large (albeit not as "vast" as sometimes assumed) "middle" in Texas who don't regularly turn out to vote for Republicans and who might possibly be persuaded to vote for what they perceived to be an exceptional Democrat. By "exceptional," I mean exceptionally well qualified in terms of his credentials and experience, a standard that White can legitimately claim to meet, and "exceptional" in the sense of standing somewhat apart from conventional Democrats (especially as now typified by Obama, Reid, Pelosi, and the national Democratic Party).
And here, friends and neighbors, is where I think we must consider again the lesson of Debra Medina. I mean no offense to the good folks of Wharton County, whose local GOP Ms. Medina apparently was once the head of, but it's not exaggerating much to say that Ms. Medina's candidacy came out of nowhere. There was essentially nothing in her background or history to distinguish her from anyone picked at random from within the entire State of Texas. But by tapping into the same mostly inchoate rage and dissatisfaction that has found some expression in the Tea Party movement, she even though she wasn't an "official Tea Party nominee" and was in fact opposed by some Austin Tea Partiers went from zero to 18.5% of the GOP primary vote in the political blink of an eye. That's precisely why I've referred to her here as the "Neither of the Above" Candidate.
While Perry will rigorously and consistently attempt to frame the November general election in the same manner as he did the GOP primary that is, as a battle between an untrustworthy Washington insider (White instead of Hutchison) against a down-home anti-Washington conservative (himself) White's frankly a lot harder to put in that box than Hutchison was. During almost the whole of this decade, White's been attending Houston City Council meetings, not going to Capitol Hill or the White House. He's been quite literally handing out MREs to Hurricane Ike refugees and working on bayou drainage projects, not passing TARP or plotting the nationalization of American healthcare.
Some of my commenters have expressed grave skepticism over my assertion that White's service as Houston mayor will help him in other parts of the state. They argue that other parts of the state haven't watched the local TV news feeds during the hurricanes or seen the local headlines, and they're right about that. But White has between now and November to educate non-Houstonians about his performance as mayor, and I'm here to tell you, folks, he got enough accomplished that it's going to take a while for him to run out of things to talk about. It was not an accident that White won re-election with more than 80% of the vote in an extremely conservative city, and if you think he won't get any traction in the rest of the state from his record here, I respectfully suggest that (a) you have no real basis for that assumption, and (b) you've failed to account for the efforts the liberal media will make to assist White on this score between now and November.
Indeed, the obvious jiu-jitsu move for White to pull off will be to resist Perry's attempt to "nationalize" the Texas governor's race by turning it instead into a referendum on incumbency: By virtue of his ascension to the governorship when Dubya resigned in December 2000 plus his elections in 2002 and 2006 to two four-year terms in his own right, Perry is already the longest-serving Texas governor in history. Now, there's nowhere close to as much general dissatisfaction among Texans with what's been going on in Austin as there is with what's been going on in Washington. But that's not to say that Texans necessarily give much credit for that to Rick Perry in particular, either.
Perry, in short, had a perfect opportunity in this year's primary to exploit the Tea Partiers' anti-Washington rage in particular, and Hutchison's own efforts to make Perry's long incumbency never stuck (in part because of her own long incumbency as a U.S. senator). "Nationalizing" the primary race against Hutchison was easy, and Perry was successful in sidestepping the Tea Partiers' potential rage against himself. But White's not as vulnerable to that ploy as Hutchison was, and White may be far better positioned to use Perry's long incumbency against him.
When it comes to that one-in-five or so Texans whose votes are up for grabs, and whose votes could result in a GOP loss if all or most of them broke decisively for White, this is a new ball game, gentle readers. The November general election is not going to be like the 2002 or 2006 election indeed, the 2006 election was so weird and exceptional that it's not much use as a predictor of anything and it's not going to be like the 2010 primary elections were, either.
Wednesday, March 03, 2010
Beldar on Barone on how Perry's Harris County showing bodes for White
Michael Barone is one of my favorite and most trusted political analysts, and he has a facility with polling data and places that I utterly lack. That makes me reluctant to second-guess this preliminary conclusion of his regarding yesterday's Texas primaries:
Perry won this not in rural and small town Texas but in metro Houston. This bodes well for him in the general election, since it indicates strength in the home base of the well regarded Democratic nominee, former Houston Mayor Bill White, who was nominated by an overwhelming margin.
I'm just not sure the "bodes well" conclusion connects to the premise. Perry did well in Houston, sure, and the GOP turn-out both here and state-wide was much, much stronger than the Democratic turn-out because of the contested GOP senatorial race. It's also fair to presume that a huge percentage of those who voted for Perry in this primary will vote for him again in the general election, and indeed, that some still very large majority of Texas Republicans who either didn't choose or bother to vote for Perry in the primary will nevertheless vote for him in the general election.
But you are still talking about a primary. Even the 12 percent or so of total registered Texas voters who voted, state-wide, in the GOP primary collectively represent only a small fraction of likely voters in the November election.
And as I'm sure Barone knows, the mayoral races in which White's won election and reelection by huge super-majorities were nominally — and to an amazing extent, genuinely — nonpartisan. It would be silly to assume that in a partisan race for statewide office this November, White would ever have gotten all, or mostly all, of the same individual voters who've voted for him for mayor in the past.
I don't think the main significance of White's history as Houston's mayor, in fact, is directly connected to how Houston/Harris County voters in particular will vote. I think that based on the reputation he's earned among Houstonians, he will indeed do at least somewhat better here than the hypothetical "average" Democratic candidate for governor; and since Houston is the state's largest city, even "somewhat better" will translate into some tens of thousands of votes. But it's not a big enough swing to win the state-wide race for him.
Put another way, there are too many Houston voters (like me) who were perfectly happy to vote twice for a fellow like White for mayor (where the damage a wild-eyed liberal could do, even if he tried, is institutionally minimized), but who wouldn't vote for him for a state-wide or federal office (where a wild-eyed liberal could do vastly more damage). That White has been sympathetic to, or even fully on board with, pretty all of the values and positions of the national Democratic Party just hasn't been relevant in Houston's mayoral campaigns, but it's obviously much more relevant now that he's running for governor. For all those voters who apply different criteria to local races than they do to state or federal ones, White could never count on us as "a lock" anyway, even though we did vote for him as mayor. And that's true regardless of whether we voted for Perry or Hutchison or Medina yesterday in the GOP primary.
Instead, White's generally well-respected performance during two terms as mayor of Houston is important in the overall race (and not just in Houston/Harris County) for two reasons:
First, having been the mayor of the nation's fourth-largest city for eight years with generally conspicuous success — despite a direct hit by Hurricane Ike and a lot of collateral impact from Hurricane Katrina — is an attractive, conventional, and entirely legitimate credential for becoming governor. You can appreciate that whether you live in Houston or Waco or Dumas or Laredo. Without some comparable credential — and frankly, there aren't very many of those to go around, certainly not among Texas Democrats (who haven't won a state-wide election this Millennium) — Perry would have an enormous relative campaign edge, simply because he's been governor for the past decade and the state's still in decent shape (and compared to the rest of the U.S., incredible shape).
Second, keeping the focus on his record in Houston gives White his best opportunity to distance himself from Obama and from the national Democratic Party. You can guaran-damn-tee that between now and November, White will spend a whole lot more time reminding folks of his local service in Houston than of his time as Bill Clinton's Undersecretary of Energy. (He's also not going to spend a lot of time talking about his early 1980s law practice.)
White surely has always known he's an underdog. He's surely never imagined that Houston could be a "vote stronghold" for him as a Democrat in any state-wide race. Someone had to win on the GOP side, and by definition that candidate is going to have made a relatively strong showing among primary voters. I just don't see that Perry's relative success over Hutchison in the GOP primary here yesterday says much one way or another about the still-considerable (but never determinative) extent that White will be helped locally and statewide by his record as a two-term mayor here.
DGA's Daschle draws wrong lessons from Texas primaries: White has a chance in November, but it's despite (not due to) Obama and the national Dems
“Tonight’s results are a stark reminder that Republicans’ giddiness about 2010 is premature,” Daschle said. “Rick Perry is our nation’s longest serving Republican governor and yet he barely won 50 percent of the vote in his own primary. We need no more evidence to know that this is not a pro-Republican electorate; it’s an electorate that wants results over rhetoric, optimism over pessimism, and success over secession. I can only assume that tonight’s results send chills down the spine of Rick Perry’s campaign manager.”
So reads a congratulatory press release celebrating Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White's overwhelming victory with 76% of the votes in the Texas Democratic Primary issued tonight by the Democratic Governor's Association. The "Daschle" being quoted is not long-time U.S. Senator Tom Daschle (D-ND), whom John Thune beat in 2004, and who was last seen in early 2009 under the rear wheels of the Obama Administration's bus (when a tax scandal obliged him to withdraw from further consideration as Obama's nominee for H&HS Secretary). Rather, it's Tom's son Nathan, a 2002 Harvard Law grad who worked briefly as a litigation associate for Covington & Burling before joining the DGA in 2005. Now the DGA's Executive Director, we're told by its website that "Nathan previously served as the DGA’s Counsel and Director of Policy, a position in which he coordinated DGA’s legal efforts and advised governors and candidates on a wide range of policy matters," and that he "has also served in the legislative affairs office of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees and the Natural Resources Defense Council [and] also worked on the [unsuccessful] 1996 U.S. Senate campaign of Tom Strickland (CO)."
So do these credentials qualify Daschle the Younger as an expert on Texas politics? Could he be right in insisting that Bill White actually has a chance against Republican incumbent Gov. Rick Perry, whose 51% tally in Tuesday's primary won him renomination without a run-off in a three-way race against sitting U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and the vaguely Tea Party-affiliated newcomer Debra Medina?
I think the 2010 Texas gubernatorial race will indeed be interesting, and it may be closer than a lot of people are predicting but if so, I'm very, very certain that won't be for the reasons spewed out by the likes of Nathan Daschle or other Washington Democratic machine politicians. And indeed, the message of this primary for the Democrats, if they're smart enough to heed it, was that so long as they keep quietly sending lots of money, career politicos like Daschle probably ought to stay the hell away from Texas in general and from Bill White's campaign in particular.
Perhaps only a Harvard Law-trained Democratic spin-meister could mock Perry for "barely [winning] 50 percent of the vote in his own primary." If confronted with that claim, I'm quite sure that Perry's first reaction echoing Scott Brown's devastating point in the Massachusetts special election last month would be to insist that this wasn't his primary, but rather the Texas GOP's primary. Only an idiot or, perhaps, a Harvard Law-trained Democratic spin-meister could trivialize a primary-election clash between a state's sitting governor (since December 2000) and its senior U.S. senator (since 1993). And indeed, this time last year, Perry trailed Hutchison by double digits in early polling for this race.
From Perry's 51% showing, Daschle argues that "[w]e need no more evidence to know that this is not a pro-Republican electorate." But surely even a Harvard Law-trained Democratic spin-meister wouldn't dispute that a GOP primary is indeed, by definition (even outside of Texas), a "pro-Republican electorate," so Daschle must have been talking about the combination of the two primaries held on Tuesday. So how does that work out for his argument? As of this moment, with 99.63% of the vote reported, the Texas SecState's tallies show that for the seven candidates in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, a total of 676,795 have been cast, amounting to 5.19% of just over 13 million registered voters in Texas. In the GOP primary, by contrast, the corresponding numbers are 1,471,429 votes totaled for the three Republican candidates, amounting to 11.29% of the state's 13 million voters. Well over twice as many Texans came out to vote as part of the "pro-Republican electorate," in other words, as did in the "pro-Democratic electorate." ("Registered voters" here means all who are registered to vote in the general election, regardless of party; Texas has open primaries that aren't limited to "registered Democrats" or "registered Republicans," there being no such party-based registration here.)
Those figures compare to the March 2006 turn-out figures of 5 and 4 percent, respectively, for the GOP and Democratic primaries so a bare one percent more of registered voters turned out for this year's Democratic primary, compared to a more than doubling of the percentage for registered voters who turned out for this year's GOP primary. The Dems actually had much more excitement in their 2002 primary, when they got over 8% of registered voters to vote in a slug-out between Dan Morales, Tony Sanchez, and two lesser-known candidates. (Yes, there actually were lesser known candidates.) Sanchez won the Dem primary with 62%, but then was crushed by Perry in the general election by a 58% to 40% margin.
No, Nathan, if there are "chills running down the spine" of Perry's campaign manager tonight, they're the good kind of chills the very well-satisfied ones. Perry not only came from behind against a formidable, universally known, and well-financed opponent, but he managed what was probably, in context and overall, a substantially greater challenge as well: Perry effectively co-opted enough of the Texas Tea Partiers or those generally sympathetic to the Tea Party's protests, which I think amounts to a vastly larger number of people than those who've actually attended a rally or protest to prevent a "None of the Above"-candidate like Debra Medina from forcing a run-off.
And with due, which is to say, not very much, respect to her that's all Ms. Medina's candidacy ever was. She had no political track record. She had a laughable absence of credentials to demonstrate a basic capacity to serve adequately as the state's chief executive. When she was asked, in effect, "Whatcha think about them Truthers and them Birthers?" she couldn't even maintain enough discipline in her talking points to pass what's become, for better or worse, a political litmus test now used to identify the farthest fringes of the political fray. She confessed, in other words, to a fondness for fruitcakes, and if she's not a fruitcake herself, she offered no convincing proof to that effect.
(NB: I do very emphatically respect those who are thoroughly fed up with politics as usual, and especially Washington politics as usual, and whose rage opens them to careful consideration of non-incumbents. But she was a poor choice, a wholly inadequate vessel, for their hopes and beliefs. If new political voices are to inject new leadership into state and national politics, they can't just skip the "basic competency" category of qualifications.)
That Ms. Medina, despite her utter lack of credible credentials or experience, ended up polling 18.5% (to Hutchison's 30% and Perry's 51%) is still an incredibly important result from Tuesday's vote something that should indeed grab the attention of incumbent politicians of both parties whether in blue, red, or purple states. But by calibrating his campaign rhetoric to run mostly congruent to the Tea Partiers' protests and entirely congruent with the Tea Partiers' anti-Washington, anti-federal government themes Perry was able not only to keep "None of the Above" from forcing a run-off, he was able to win the nomination outright with a majority vote in the first primary round.
And by doing that, Perry not only shored up his standing with a voting populace that will indeed be naturally skeptical of a former Clinton Administration cabinet undersecretary in November's general election, he eliminated the substantial risks of a runoff that he almost certainly was destined to win anyway. The risks were that he'd have to spend more time and money fighting Hutchison and being tarred, perhaps indelibly, by Hutchison's negative advertising. (Some of Hutchison's ads were pretty effective, much moreso, I thought, than Perry's Democratic opponents have managed to put together in past races.)
It's not that Hutchison wanted to run against the Tea Partiers! Heavens, no, she would have loved to cuddle up with them, and she tried to remind them that she was preaching "limited government" and "fiscal responsibility" back in the 1960s, when John Tower and George H.W. Bush were about the only Texas Republicans who'd gathered any national prominence from a state still dominated by LBJ and what was then a very conservative Democratic Party. But she was indeed vulnerable to charges of being a pork-grabber, and Perry lashed her mercilessly (if, in my judgment, not entirely fairly) with her pro-TARP vote from the fall of 2008.
Can Republicans from less deeply red states win in November with the same model Perry has just used one in which he never quite sought, and certainly never became, the "nominee" or "official candidate" of a movement that isn't quite yet an actual political party, but with whose sentiments he very diligently and aggressively and unashamedly identified himself? Obviously, Perry would have had a much harder time of this strategy if he himself had been an incumbent in a federal office rather than a state one. Thank goodness none of the scoundrels who make their livings in the legislative and administrative back alleys of Austin have figured out yet what a "trillion" means; as a result, most of the Tea Partiers' ire is still being directed, quite appropriately, at Washington. But in other states can you say "Kah-lee-VORN-ee-ya"? without the budget surpluses or economic prosperity that Texas continues to enjoy, the Tea Partiers' anti-incumbency mood may well blanket both state and federal politicians. And indeed, it should.
So why, then after roundly mocking Daschle the Younger for being thoroughly out of touch with, at least, Texas voters would I agree with Daschle's main point, i.e., that a Bill White win in November is at least imaginable?
Well, friends and neighbors, it's this: I happen to know that unlike Barack Obama and Nathan Daschle, Bill White didn't go to Harvard Law School. Instead, he went to good ol' Texas Law School where he was editor in chief of the Texas Law Review, he actually did write and publish a fine student note for the Review, and he was the Grand Chancellor in Spring 1978 (meaning academically first in his class as of the end of their second year). He's a San Antonio native who's never lost his drawl or had to fake one. He will draw heavily, and with considerable appeal, on his record as a multi-term (and multi-hurricane) nonpartisan mayor of Houston. And he will fight tooth and nail against Perry's attempts to keep the focus on Washington and its single most prominent symbol, who's also quite probably the single most unpopular person among conservative and moderate Texas voters Barack Obama. Tonight's exchanges from the two campaigns, as reported by the Houston Chronicle, are already sounding the themes we'll be hearing and reading for the next eight months:
White told supporters in Houston he expects Perry to try to “perpetuate” himself with politics of division and distraction to avoid talking about Texas issues, such as high unemployment, state government growth and unfunded mandates for local governments.
“Texans deserve a new governor,” a leader who is “more interested in the jobs of Texans than in preserving his own job,” White said.
White said he believes Perry will continue trying to put voters’ attention on political debates in Washington.
“They’ll point fingers at Washington and talk about the alarming growth in government in Washington so you won’t notice the alarming growth in government in Austin,” the Democratic nominee said.
Perry, speaking to supporters at the Salt Lick barbecue restaurant in Driftwood, signaled that he fully intends to continue the anti-Washington rhetoric.
“From Driftwood, Texas, to Washington, D.C., we are sending you a message tonight: Stop messing with Texas!” Perry said.
Perry said his challenges are to tell the story of a successful Texas, “defend the conservative values that made them possible” and “remain attuned to the threat of a federal government that continues to overreach,” as well as increasing its spending. “It is clear the Obama administration and their allies already have Texas in their cross hairs,” Perry said, referring to his expectations that national Democrats will support White.
In short, White will run away from Obama. He'll have all the money he could possibly want in order to fine-tune that image. He's objectively better qualified, with a more substantial record of public service, than anyone the Dems have run for state-wide office in years. And Perry does have some high negatives (some of which he's earned), even though he's now been spared the ordeal of further sniping from Hutchison in a run-off.
Do I think a White victory is likely? No and I think that by dodging the run-off, Perry has indeed made a giant stride toward reelection in November. But could a White win in November happen, even in Texas, even without some sort of miracle in Washington that makes Barack Obama suddenly beloved of all Texans? Yeah, it could happen. White will have to avoid drawing the wrath of those who voted "None of the Above" (i.e., for Medina) yesterday, which he can mostly do by not looking or sounding like Obama, by staying well clear of the national Democratic Party, and by continuing to at least mouth platitudes that are pro-business, anti-taxation, and fiscally responsible. And Perry will need to shoot off a few of his own toes or perhaps get caught in bed with the proverbial dead girl or live boy.