Bush's free ride

With a little help from his Democratic pals, George W. Bush has become the GOP front-runner for president. But it's a cold world beyond Texas' borders, and it may take more than charm and luck to carry a good ol' boy to the White House.

Bush boasts today as part of his re-election campaign that he batted a perfect four-for-four, even though none of the reforms went as far as he wanted them to go, especially welfare. His original plan called for capping benefits to women who bear additional children while on the dole, testing recipients for drugs, limiting the number of times someone could be on welfare to one, and ending benefits for recipients after two years. None of those proposals made it into the final product.

"The original legislation that was filed--the 'Bush welfare reform proposal'--was quite punitive," says state Rep. Elliott Naishtat, an Austin Democrat who is vice chairman of the House Human Services Committee. "What we ended up with was an approach to moving people from welfare to self-sufficiency that minimizes the harm caused to recipients and their families."

Tom Pauken, the former chairman of the Texas GOP, says he would have preferred tougher welfare reform, but does not believe Bush has the will to mow over those whom Pauken brands as political centrists, such as Bullock and Laney, to institute revolutionary conservative change in government. Pauken, who derisively calls Bush a "Me-too Republican," is one of the few Texas political figures--Republican or Democrat--who is openly critical of Bush. Bush's reluctance to embrace the far-right conservatism that Pauken espouses has made them enemies. Their battle played out last year when Pauken opposed Bush's tax reform plan because he believed it created too many new taxes without cutting government spending enough. Although Bush denies it, the governor and his supporters reportedly recruited Republicans to run for attorney general this year so that Pauken wouldn't walk away with the Republican nomination. It worked. Pauken lost in the GOP primary.

Pauken says the congeniality between Bush, Bullock, and Laney did not result in particularly firebrand reforms, but it served their political purposes quite nicely. "The governor got the headlines, and Bullock and Laney got their legislative packages passed in ways that were acceptable to them."

Yet what Pauken sees as a lack of reformist fire in Bush's belly, others see as political savvy.

"He had those issues, the big four, and he had some clear vision about what he was going to do," says Tony Proffitt, a longtime and trusted political aide to Bullock. "He was intelligent enough to know they were important issues that were already being worked on and that by working those, he would accomplish something other than a stalemate."

Today, Bush takes offense at any suggestion that he has been given too much of the credit for the 1995 reforms. He argues that civil justice reforms, for example, might not have passed at all if Richards were still governor because she was supported by the plaintiffs' lawyers who vigorously opposed them. At the same time, he does not discount that his respectful and close working relationship with Bullock and Laney has helped him--especially during that first legislative session. "The point was, they shared credit with me, and I shared credit with them," Bush says. "I think that's an important part of the process."

Bush's willingness and ability to work with Democrats--both the Senate and House were majority Democrat in 1995--underscore one aspect of Texas politics that is far different from what he would face in the national arena. In Austin, committee chairmanships are shared among members of both parties. In the House, Laney has appointed Republicans to head committees on business, the environment, human services, and insurance, to name a few. Bullock has put Republicans in charge of most of the Senate's most powerful committees, including those that oversee the budget, public education, economic development, and natural resources.

"Bipartisanship in Texas is not something Bush created but rather entered into and found congenial," says Buchanan, the UT professor. "It's Bullock who really hates partisanship."

Even so, few in Austin could have predicted that Democrat Bullock would mark his final year in office by endorsing a Republican governor for re-election--especially considering that Bullock is Mauro's political mentor and the godfather of his adolescent daughter.

Bullock has described Bush as the best of the seven governors with whom he's served. He also said he thinks Bush would make an excellent president. Laney, for his part, is endorsing neither candidate in the 1998 governor's race. Bush is not actively campaigning against any Democratic incumbent House member, thus helping Laney, who may need to retain a Democratic majority in the House to remain speaker.

Such cooperation would be unimaginable in Washington, but Bush is imagining it anyway as he contemplates whether to run for president. Any president, even Texas' own Mr. Congeniality, would be hard-pressed to practice bipartisanship in the current political climate of Washington, and Bush says he has thought about that as he considers running.

Could he sit in the stands with House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt at a Washington Redskins football game? Could he hang out with Gephardt's Senate counterpart, Tom Daschle?

"Therein lies the question," Bush says during a pensive moment during his day of campaigning through South Texas. "I understand that there is a time for politics and there is a time for policy. The problem is, in some instances in Washington there hasn't been a differentiation between the two.

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