Lessons from the Texas Primaries

Looking for a Coalition with Legs

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Although pundits from right to left have been magnetized into horserace

election analysis, comparing man to man, there is something else, and something more difficult to

consider. How are the people moving beneath it all? And what are they trying to work out?

Last week they, the people, appeared crisp in the morning and crumpled by afternoon,

the smell of cologne giving way to diesel, as election-day wore on. It was a fair day for voting in

Texas, and from what I witnessed as a substitute election judge, Democrats were trying to get a

movement on. Although Democrats in Texas managed to top their turnout of four years ago, Republicans

let their numbers dip dramatically. And the regular staff of Republicans at one South Austin polling

place gave anecdotal evidence that the lopsided Democratic turnout last week was a reversal of recent


Signs of hope were produced. Liberal Congressman Lloyd Doggett easily won the

party vote in a new Hispanic district that was drawn by Republicans to defeat him.


liberal Congressman Ciro Rodriguez also prevailed in a 126-vote squeaker against more conservative

Henry Cuellar, who campaigned on his ability to get along with Republicans. We’ll return to the

Rodriguez example below.

As San Antonio columnist Carlos Guerra summarized the local

races, four Democratic incumbents of the Texas legislature were turned out by angry voters for sins of

financial scandal or Republican collaboration. Most famously, the iconoclastic Black Democrat Ron

Wilson of Houston was retired after three decades, because he had testified in favor of the Republican

redistricting plan.

Wilson’s argument, by the way, that the redistricting plan would

yield more Black representation in Congress, was actually verified by the election of Houston NAACP

activist Al Green, who beat a one-term white liberal incumbent, just as Doggett was supposed to be

defeated by Hispanics.

Finally, an exit poll by the Houston Voice showed that a majority

of Texans do not favor a Constitutional definition of marriage.

So if you put the pieces

of the puzzle together, it would look like the Democrats are restless in Texas and fighting mad. That

was also the impression I got from hundreds of Democrats who lined up to vote in South Austin. Some

joked loudly about being “Yellow Dog Democrats” who would rather vote for yellow dogs than


One Hispanic family and one Black family filed in with three generations of

voters each. Yes, they each said, you may stamp my card Democrat.

At the Republican

table, too, there were signs of fierce party loyalty. “You can stamp my forehead if you want to,” was

a line I heard more than once, from both partisan camps.

The experience left me with an

impression that the choice between John Kerry and George Bush does not represent what is really at

stake in November. People on the ground are tussling with each other over something else, not quite

embodied in either man.

Of course, the Bush machine has helped to make Texas a foregone

Republican state for the first time since Reconstruction, and despite the compelling evidence that I

wanted to take from the polling place, I wonder if that machine is not about to solidify the trend

worldwide. Of course, I hope not. But the Bush machine can’t do what the people won’t


Although a recent Gallup Poll shows that Kerry is a contender with the voters and

that Bush is below 50 percent approval, the same pollsters report that Bush holds an astounding 91

percent loyalty among Republicans (second only to Eisenhower in 1956). If Bush is to be defeated, this

loyalty has to be somehow cracked and made vulnerable to facts. But this will require taking our eyes

off Bush in order to understand where that loyalty is really based.

Furthermore, says

Gallup, the issue of terrorism still tops the list of “critical threats” among all voters, ranking

far above the much-vaunted issue of unemployment. This makes the chore of deflating Bush loyalty all

the more daunting, since it requires national therapy for the reactionary psychology so effectively

implanted on Sept. 11, and perpetuated last week in Spain. Don’t we fear what another horrific

massacre will do to the national mind?

Concerning the “jobs issue,” it is instructive

to witness up close how election-day voting is crammed around the work day. Lines form before work,

during lunch, after the early shift, and especially after five o’clock. Between these times come a few

retirees and mothers with babies. Campaigns that focus too much on unemployment might miss these actual

voters. By and large, it is working Americans who take time to vote, or not.


Americans who are caught up in the work day have precious little time. To how many voters did we

explain, that this was a party primary? But why did they have to pick a party, some asked? Or why

couldn’t they pull a straight ticket? Later in news reports, these primary-party voters would be

lumped together as “activists,” when it was clear that political literacy was sometimes quite


Despite the passion that I saw on election day in Texas, and despite the signs

of hope, I worry about a Bush victory. Yes, many Democrats are angry. But who else is their anger

convincing? If the playing field is all about anger this year, then Bush wins. Republicans have long

mastered the anger card.

In the suburbs of Williamson, Collin, and Montgomery counties-

-north of Austin, Dallas and Houston respectively–new roads and subdivisions get built every day.

Homes in the 100’s with new streets and no trees. People moving into neighborhoods that chill you with

tidiness. Fresh-waxed cars that hustle to and from the office. In the midst of this progress, people

are angry and afraid. Bush’s relationship to this landscape is taproot to the Republican


As Kelly Shannon pointed out in an Associated Press analysis, these burgeoning

suburban counties are bread and butter to the Bush machine.

Lots of Democrats don’t

like it. There is something scary about what counts for normal development. Home building, Fox News,

and the Pentagon add up to a curious projection of national character that has made push-button

warriors of us all. Robocops are us. If the Kerry campaign can figure out how so many Democrats have

nevertheless managed to see through it all, the grassroots may help to teach him how to project another

kind of America.

From what I saw last week, a coalition is waiting to be made: Black and

Hispanic voters hanging tough with their legacies of opportunity and civil rights; Liberal white voters

refusing to give up their ideals of fair play and democratic participation; Independent voters looking

for somebody with a straight and sensible game.

And what about retirees, and mothers

with babies? Is it possible among such voters that issues of human care can overcome the national

psychology of fear and insecurity?

Returning to the example of Congressman Ciro

Rodriguez, instructive is the list of issues highlighted at his web page. Although the contest between

Rodriguez and Cuellar was largely a tug of war between Laredo and San Antonio, here are the issues that

helped Rodriguez squeak out his victory: strengthening national security, promoting better health,

honoring veterans, enhancing educational opportunities, developing economic growth, preserving natural

resources, and supporting working men and women. Are these the issues that can help transform red

states to blue?

I asked one voter which party he’d like to vote in, and he answered

sincerely, Independen
t or possibly Green. I think he was looking for Ralph Nader. I liked the guy. He

showed up during
one of the alternative hours, not so closely regulated by the work day, wearing black

t-shirt and jeans. It would have been good to give him the ballot he was looking for. But he cast his

vote on the Democrat side, perhaps joining me in the point nine percent of Texans who went for

Kucinich. If the national ballot comes down to a squeaker, he can be a crucial part of the coalition,


I think Democrats would be foolish to cut Nader out. He’s been shaking up

Washington for more than forty years. He is organized, informed, and no fool. As people on the ground

are looking for a way to go, Nader can help with facts, strategies, and ideas. A day spent campaigning

against Nader is a day wasted by Democrats who should have better things to do.

So I was

pleased by news that the Kerry campaign is in a fighting mood, rolling out a counter-spot late last

week, only one day after the Bush campaign attacked him. That’s what the emerging coalition wants to

see–a fighting chance to go somewhere else but through the Bushes again.

And yet,

important questions remain widely unasked. Who are the American people this year? In the difference

between Bush loyalists and the would-be Kerry coalition, what aspirations are vying for leadership of

these United States? What is happening when all these feet hit the ground to vote, or not to vote, on

election day? These are the questions that may guide what we most need to know. It can’t be a

horserace if it takes millions of legs to win.

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