Gail Collins on the Mighty Texas

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 5 2012 6:30 AM

Everything’s Bigger About Texas

Not just in 2012! In 50 years, we may all be Texans—or Texans might not even be Americans.

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Without anyone much noting it, Texas had taken a starring role in the 21st-century national political discussion

Photographs by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images; Jemal Countess/Getty Images; Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images; Rich Schultz/Getty Images. Compiled by Jane Zitomer.

My fascination with Texas began rather suddenly. It was the spring of 2009—you will remember, that was the season when the political right was failing to adjust to the idea of a President Obama. And there was Gov. Rick Perry at a Tea Party rally in Austin, publicly toying with the idea that his state might consider seceding.

It was quite a moment. Perry was standing behind a podium with a “Don’t Mess With Texas” banner, wearing jeans, his trademark boots, and looking pretty damned ticked off. “Texas has yet to learn submission to any oppression, come from what source it may,” he said, quoting the state’s great founding father, Sam Houston. When Houston made that remark, he was definitely attempting to break away from the country to which Texas was then attached.

“We didn’t like oppression then, we don’t like oppression now!” Perry roared to the cheering crowd, some of whom were waving “Secede!” signs. It did sure sound like an Alamo kind of crisis. Their backs were to the wall!

And, important point: This was just a rally about the stimulus package.

It was perhaps the first time the rest of the country had taken notice of the fact that 21st-century Texans did not necessarily consider the idea of breaking away to become a separate nation as, um, nuts. We non-Texans were somewhat taken aback. How long had this been going on? Was it something we said?

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“We’ve got a great union,” Perry assured reporters after the rally ended. “There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their noses at the American people, you know, who knows what might come of that?”

Does this sound like a serious commitment to you? Try to imagine a husband telling his wife that he saw absolutely no reason to get a divorce—but if she continued to fail to live up to expectations, who knows what might come of that?

You had to pay attention. Not necessarily to Perry himself, who of course went on to become one of the worst candidates for president in all of American history. But the rally, with its combination of egomania (We’re the best!) and paranoia (Don’t mess with Texas!), was a near-perfect reflection of the Tea Party’s war cry in national politics.

That’s not an accident. The more I looked at Texas, which seemed to be having an anti-Obama rally every time a cow mooed, the more important it seemed. Without anyone much noting it, Texas had taken a starring role in the 21st-century national political discussion. For one thing, it had the hottest economy—which the rest of us were told we’d better emulate unless we wanted all the local employers to pack up and move to Plano. The reason Perry imagined he could be president was the way Texas had created job growth by hewing to the low-tax-low-regulation ethic that the political right believes should be the model for the entire country. (The model had certain flaws, such as the assumption that every state could scrimp on higher education and just build a large professional class by importing people who went to college in other states.)

Then a friend sent me a headline from a Texas news report: “Man Allegedly Beat Woman with Frozen Armadillo.” I was totally hooked.

So I started thinking a lot about Texas. Looking back over the last quarter century or so, I was stunned by how much of the national agenda it had produced, for good or ill.

Texas banking laws set the stage for the savings and loan crisis in the 1980s. The 2008 economic meltdown was the product of a financial deregulation that was the work of many hands, but most particularly the paws of Texas Sen. Phil Gramm. Our energy policy is the way it is in large part because Texas politicians and Texas special interests like it that way. (If the polar ice caps melt, it’s not going to be Utah’s fault.) Schools from Portland, Ore., to Portland, Maine, have been remade, reorganized, and sometimes totally upended under a federal law based on Texas education reform. For several generations, our kids have been reading textbooks written with an eye to Texas sensibilities. Texas presidents have led the country into every land war the United States has been involved in since Vietnam.

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