'Johnny B' is a good choice

Oh boy, a good race!
I know that politics is in dreadful disrepute, but the prospect of a fine, old-fashioned duke-out over some real stuff--not just the spin on stuff--gets the juices stirring. Rep. John Bryant, a populist Democrat, has announced he's running against Phil Gramm, the part-time senator for New Hampshire.

Bryant's announcement makes the Democratic primary a four-way race with Bryant probably having the edge going in. He joins Rep. Jim Chapman of Sulphur Springs, one of those quasi-Republican Democrats (voted with Rep. Newt Gingrich on the Hyde amendment, assault weapons, school prayer, minimum wage, Clinton's economic plan, etc.); Victor Morales, a high-school teacher from Mesquite whose Hispanic name is a plus; and John Odam, one of the most decent men in Texas.

But as Hugh Parmer's 1990 race against Gramm proves (Parmer lost, 60 percent to 37 percent), decency is not enough. In fact, Bryant vs. Odam in the primary is a neat example of Michael Lind's thesis that there's a radical center and a moderate middle.

Lind, a political theorist, thinks that both parties are largely irrelevant and that the political action is on the ground in between them. He divides the center into the moderate middle--sort of Paul Tsongas Democrats and pro-choice Republicans--and angry voters who would have been George Wallace Democrats 30 years ago.

Johnny Bryant is not a good-hair politician--in fact, he's sort of mullet-faced--but he's always been a people's fighter, without the abrasive personality that made Jim Mattox so hard to take. When Bryant was in the Legislature, he headed the "Gang of Four" that challenged Speaker Wayne Clayton. In Congress, he called on Speaker Tom Foley to resign after the House banking scandal--not what you could call an "insider" or a "go-along, get-along" record. He's a fighting reformer who has always been against big money in politics--both the ban on "freebies" for members of Congress and the lobbyist-disclosure acts passed by the House just last month were largely Bryant's work.

Most troubling to liberals is Bryant's consistent opposition to immigration, both legal and il-. Bryant wants to cut down on legal immigration with low numerical limits and stop illegal immigration with a much stronger border patrol, document verification, and streamlined deportation procedures. At least he doesn't propose building a fence along the border.

Personally, Bryant is an Eagle Scout, churchgoer, and dedicated family man, also known as a workhorse with impressive stamina. The last time Texas Democrats put up a candidate for the Senate, ol' What's-his-name, no one ever heard from him after the primary. With "Johnny B," as he's called, Gramm will know he's in a fight and should bring his lunch.

We need to start a "Take Back the Words" program. First, Republicans went and ruined that fine, traditional phrase "special interests"--which has always stood for sugar, tobacco, railroads, oil, or any organized corporate special-interest group. They kept using "special interests" to refer to women, blacks, Hispanics, gays, and others until it became a synonym for "groups of people."

Now they're trying to take over the word "revolution." In the first place, a revolution, by definition, involves something new. If your entire program consists of dismantling government so we can go back to a pre-New Deal America, it is not revolutionary in any sense but profoundly reactionary.

In the second place, the Republican "revolution" is precisely more of the same of the worst traits of Congress: letting corporate lobbyists for the real special interests rewrite laws in exchange for huge campaign contributions. Corporate lobbyists are the kings of the Hill these days. Not only did they write huge chunks of the repeal of environmental and health and safety laws, but they even got into the reconciliation sessions between the House and the Senate and made the bills worse there. The New York Times reported last week that nursing-home lobbyists snuck in changes during reconciliation that are worth billions of dollars to them.

Thirdly, when the result of your reactionary program is to further enrich the rich and further impoverish the poor, it is counter-revolutionary. Even the cynical Talleyrand defined revolution as "the turning over of a dung-heap"--i.e., those who were on bottom wind up on top. You can't have a revolution that shoves those on bottom further into the muck and makes those on top even richer. Etymologists, unite; you have nothing to lose but your meanings.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Copyright 1995 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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Molly Ivins

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