Saturday, February 16, 2008

William McKenzie: For Texas Dems, only name remains same

By William McKenzie - Dallas Morning News Columnist - Tuesday, February 12, 2008

There's a Clinton on the ballot again, but that's about all that's similar to 1992, the last time Texas Democrats had a bona-fide presidential primary.

Texas grew so Republican in the intervening years that it's almost impossible to remember that 16 years ago, we had a Democrat as governor in Ann Richards, a Democrat as senator in Lloyd Bentsen, a Democrat as lieutenant governor in Bob Bullock, a Democrat as Texas House speaker in Gib Lewis, and a bevy of white male Democrats playing key roles in the Legislature like Pete Laney, David Cain and Rob Junell.

As it happened, the party was on its last legs; two years later, Republicans would start sweeping statewide races. But Democrats still dominated state politics when the 1992 presidential primary was in full swing.

One reason was because they had plenty of those white male Democrats, or WMDs. They made up a majority of the Texas congressional delegation. And most WMD voters were to the right of the national party and products of corporate offices or the farms of East and West Texas.

Coming from nearby Arkansas, Bill Clinton won their votes. But the WMDs made it possible for a conservative Democrat like Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas to have a voice in the 1992 primary. He was Mr. Clinton's top opponent when the race hit Texas in March 1992. And thanks to Mr. Tsongas, a deficit hawk among deficit hawks, the Democratic contest focused on controlling spending as much as rolling out new investments.

Mr. Clinton loved to yammer about investing in roads and bridges and middle-class tax cuts, all parts of his bridge to tomorrow. Mr. Tsongas would counter with piles of statistics showing how we were eating our children's future by failing to control entitlement spending.

Heck, in his book, A Call to Economic Arms, which I still have in my bookcase at work, he wrote that he wanted Congress to spend 1 percent less than the annual cost of living adjustment that programs like Social Security receive. It's not everyday that you hear any politician, much less a government-friendly Democrat, advocate for reducing entitlement spending.

You sure won't hear that this year, sad to say. There's little upside for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama to talk about fiscal responsibility. There are too few conservative Democrats to win over. The ones who used to elect Tory Democrats like Mr. Bentsen or Charlie Stenholm have moved out of the party.

What has come in their place is a growing Latino influence on the Democrats. Hispanics are on course to become Texas' dominant population segment by 2020 or 2030. Whites will slip to No. 2, while blacks will be third.

This shift is having quite an effect on Texas' politics and culture. One way you see it is in the changing way race is discussed these days.

The historic black/white discussion continues, but when it comes to demographic issues like where new schools should go, the debate is as likely to be between Latinos and African-Americans.

It will be interesting to see how well Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama manage this tension. She's banking her Texas strategy on turning out Latino voters; he naturally has support among African-Americans.

Who will scramble the equation and win large numbers of both minority groups? The answer will help us understand who can best build coalitions.

This year's primary will play out in our cities, more than old Democratic strongholds like East Texas. The Democratic resurgence today is found in places like Dallas and Houston, once GOP bastions. And it matches up with large Democratic populations in El Paso and San Antonio.

That will make it easy for the candidates to skip between cities. And they can reach many of their voters through the state's big media markets.

Here's one final difference from 1992: The feeling then was of an inevitable Republican rise. Today, you get the sense that Texas Democrats are only a few years from returning as a powerhouse. Texas Monthly even declared that state Rep. Rafael Anchia, a Dallas Democrat, would become the state's first Hispanic governor – in 2018.

So, the campaign Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama wage in the coming weeks may presage future Democratic campaigns in our state. Instead of leading to an end of an era, this primary could give us a taste of the beginning of a new one.

Read more in the Dallas Morning News

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