Who Is George W. Bush?

Who Is George W. Bush?

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
March 28 2000 9:15 PM

Who Is George W. Bush?

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You asked a good question, Evan, when you wondered how much a Texas governor can hope to accomplish, given the constitutional weakness of the office. The answer is, it depends on the governor. Most of them haven't wanted to accomplish very much. They have been ribbon-cutters with small and specific legislative agendas. Even Ann Richards fell into this category; her interest lay in being the symbol of a "New Texas" and in appointing agency overseers and directors who proved that somebody other than white males could run the government. Bush was different. He dominated the legislative agenda far more than any governor since John Connally in the mid-'60s. In fact, he dominated it totally. The only issues of consequence in the Bush years were his issues—reforms of tort laws, education, juvenile justice, and welfare in his first session; tax reform in his second, ending social promotion of failing students, tax cuts, and parental notification of abortions in his third. It is true, as his critics have pointed out, that the four big issues he campaigned on in 1994 would have gotten some attention in 1995 no matter who was governor. But no one who was around the Capitol in that year would contest that Bush drove those issues much further than the legislature would have gone on its own.

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What we learned from the Bush years is that the real infirmity of the governor's office is not the constitution but the nonpartisan organization of the legislature, which deprives the governor of a ready-made team that can carry the ball for his proposals. As a result, the governor has to put together his own team. This is where Bush's predecessors failed—and where he succeeded. He ignored partisan differences and put together ad hoc teams of the best and brightest legislators (please, no oxymoron jokes) of both parties. He won over the Democratic lieutenant governor, a powerful officer in Texas who presides over the Senate, and the Democratic speaker of the House. He made deals. His only failure was his tax-reform plan—it was a courageous and controversial proposal that is essential for the future of financing state government, especially education. It would have lowered property taxes and substituted, among other things, a business income tax on doctors, lawyers, and other professionals who currently avoid business taxes, though somehow I don't think that's how he would characterize it today. In any case, it was killed by Republican senators and morphed into $1 billion of property-tax relief for local taxpayers. (This wasn't very effective: It amounted to a pittance per taxpayer, which most school districts wiped out by raising taxes anyway.)

This record of legislative success is what lies behind Bush's line about being a uniter rather than a divider. It's justified. On the other hand, you may have noticed that Congress does seem to be divided along partisan lines, and it would be a lot harder for him to be a uniter up there than it was down here. What we're going to hear about from the Democrats, however, is not what Bush did accomplish but what he didn't. They'll make Texas out to have the air quality of Pittsburgh in the Smoky City days and the criminal justice standards of old Dodge City. It's not quite that bad, but the truth is that long before George W. Bush came to office, the great majority of Texans had decided that they were willing to tolerate some carcinogens in the air in return for industrial jobs (in Houston, it's called "The Smell of Money") and anything that might reduce violent crime from toting guns to executing murderers. Nothing Bush would have been inclined to do could have changed this attitude, and in fact he did play a role in getting the worst-polluting power plants phased out in the new electricity deregulation law. Of course, Bush did not buck the prevailing attitude; in fact, he reflected it. Where he can be faulted is not for his decisions on specific bills, but for having too narrow a range of interests. If something is not on his radar screen, you can't get him to care about it, or, as we have seen in the presidential campaign, even to act as if he cared about it. He'd better learn, or he's not going to be president.  

Paul

How conservative is George W. Bush? How capable? This week, the staff of Texas Monthly magazine allows Slate readers to eavesdrop as they discuss what kind of president Bush would make.

The participants in this dialogue include Texas Monthly Editor Greg Curtis, Executive Editor Paul Burka, Deputy Editor Evan Smith, Senior Editors Skip Hollandsworth and Joe Nick Patoski, Associate Editor Pam Colloff, and Contributing Editor Patricia Kilday Hart.