The re-election of President Bush last November and the Republican Party's reinforced majority in Congress have turned attention once again to what some political observers call Texas-style politics. Foreign critics of the Bush administration also like to use the Texas image, often portraying the president as a cowboy. But those who follow the Lone Star state's political scene closely see more myth than reality in this picture.
In a forum at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, political analysts sat down to examine the influence of Texas and the presidency of George W. Bush on national politics.
Julie Mason, White House correspondent for the Houston Chronicle, notes that many of her colleagues and friends back in Washington have some prejudicial notions about Mr. Bush and his home state that cloud their thinking.
"Some of the negative attributes that people talk about President Bush having seem to be sort of uniquely Texan and there seems to be an anti-Texas tinge to it all when people talk about him being a rube and not very sophisticated. I am from Massachusetts and my family thinks that I moved to Mars when I moved here and they think it is crazy and that Texans are uneducated and I think definitely there is a sort of creeping, anti-Texas cultural bias," she says.
She notes that President Bush has placed many Texans in positions of power, not so much to favor the state, but because these are people he knows and trusts. She, and other participants, also noted that Mr. Bush is less Texan in terms of his style than was the late Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat and the first Texan to become president.
But Paul Burka, Senior Executive Editor of Texas Monthly magazine, says part of the reason people in the so-called Blue regions - that is the areas where Democrats predominate - resent Texas and see the state as having too much influence nationally in that Texas represents all the values and trends that characterize the predominately Republican or Red Regions. "I think Texas is 'Red America' writ large. I do not think you could make the case that Texas is responsible for 'Red America,' but nevertheless, I think, we are the emblem to 'Blue America' of everything they do not like about 'Red America.'"
Mr. Burka says much of what the rest of the world thinks about Texas comes from the state's own homegrown myths about itself. For example, he says frontier thinking places emphasis on self-sufficiency and individualism and involves little sympathy for those who are unable to keep up. Even though the frontier disappeared long ago in Texas, the myths it generated remain, according to Mr. Burka. He says another myth is that Texans are close to the land, even though the reality is quite different.
"Texas is very much urban, 80 percent of our people live in cities and surrounding areas, but the mindset is rural, it remains rural. If you look at the famous county map of the presidential race, you saw that 'Red America'was almost the entire map and 'Blue America' was in the big cities. The entire rural America is red, it is Republican. These values that are espoused are, in many ways, not just Texas values, but also rural values," he says.
Rice University Political Science professor Earl Black, author the book,The Rise of the Southern Republicans, says these rural values are part of what has made not only Texas, but almost all of the South and the western states, lean Republican in recent years. He says the southern states, including Texas, which were solidly Democratic for most of the 20th century, have moved towards the Republicans partly because of economic and social changes. "I think the most remarkable thing about Texas as part of the rise of the South and the West, compared to the New Deal-period, the period of the Depression, is the rise of a huge Middle Class that pays taxes and wants to get a good return on their investment. They are not inclined to give Washington politicians [free reign] on control of the money that they think they have earned," he says.
Professor Black notes that Texas has been part of a broader shift in the southern states from one party to another in recent decades that has transformed national politics. In 1950, he notes, Democrats held all but two of the 105 seats in the House of Representatives from the eleven states of the old South. Now, he says, Republicans have a 33-seat advantage in congressional representation from the South and Democrats hold only a four-seat advantage in the rest of the country.
He says this has led to a much more polarized and bitter struggle for power between the parties in Washington that may make many Americans, other than Texans, feel uncomfortable.
"But that is the nature, I think, of our politics for a long time to come and Texas, in its proud role, is very accustomed to playing that kind of hardball politics. Here is one case, in which, I think, Texas is, in fact, leading the nation," he says.
Professor Black says it is possible that the Democrats will make a comeback, especially if the public becomes disenchanted with the Republicans in the years ahead over the war in Iraq and other issues. But, he says, absent some major cataclysm, Texas and the rest of the South will probably remain strongly Republican for many years to come.