Whether he wins the nomination or not, Rick Perry’s August charge into the top echelon of GOP presidential hopefuls marks at least this turning point: In national Republican politics, Texas is the new California.
Back in the day—say, the 1960s through the 1990s—California was the jumping-off point par excellence in making a bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
The reasons were both obvious and subtle: With a population topping 37 million, the state is the nation’s largest. Since the 1970s, California’s huge economy has ranked no lower than eighth and as high as fourth against the nations of the world.
The state was an acknowledged trendsetter not only in culture, through the vast reach of Hollywood, but also in social trends and, especially, in politics. You could make a pretty good case that “the 1960s” began with the “Free Speech” movement at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964-65. Howard Jarvis’s Proposition 13, a successful 1978 California ballot initiative to limit property tax increases, was the beginning of the modern “tax revolt,” which Ronald Reagan would ride to the presidency in 1980.
California has been at the forefront of the issue of illegal immigration, both in terms of numbers of illegals entering and the political backlash against their presence. The marquee event was the state’s Proposition 187 in 1994, a law (subsequently found unconstitutional in federal courts) denying illegal immigrants access to such public services as education and health care. In 1996, California crystallized the debate over racial preferences by approving Proposition 209, which banned consideration of race, sex, or ethnicity by public institutions, most notably the state’s university system.
Then there were the intangibles: From Jed Clampett to Victoria Beckham, California was the place you ought to be. The year-round perfect weather of San Diego, the glitter of Hollywood and L.A., tech central in Silicon Valley, the progressive mecca of San Francisco, and the allure of wine country: Add to that the Central Valley and the Inland Empire, some of the most productive agricultural land in the world, and the attraction was overpowering.
And for a long time, California was a state in which a Republican could do well at the polls, though not automatically. Richard Nixon was a congressman, then briefly a senator before Eisenhower picked him as his running mate in 1952. Ronald Reagan was a two-term governor. Pete Wilson, who entered the 1996 race as a top-tier contender for the GOP presidential nomination but fizzled out after throat surgery left him literally unable to speak, was twice elected to the Senate before resigning to run for governor in 1990.
Since then, however, California’s reputation as the avant garde of politics has been much in decline. The state’s economy has fared poorly, and its public finances have done even worse. The GOP has all but lost its competitiveness running statewide. Arnold Schwarzenegger might have extended the state’s pride of place as a GOP launchpad—except for his constitutional disqualification from seeking the presidency, not having been born in the United States.
What was a bit unclear as California was in decline, however—until last week, that is—was that any clear successor was emerging. One is. It’s Texas.
Texas is booming. Its population increased by just over 20 percent from 2000 to 2010, about double the national rate (which was about the same as California’s). In 2009, not a very good year, the Texas economy was just under $1.16 trillion, which ranked worldwide just behind Russia. Notwithstanding Democratic pundits’ efforts to pooh-pooh Texas’s economic success, its job growth barely hiccupped during the Great Recession. Within about a year of the onset of the financial crisis, Texas’s total employment found its bottom at a level about the same as that at the end of 2007—much better in percentage terms than any other state’s job-loss record—and quickly resumed a rate of growth similar to that from 2002 to 2008. Put it this way: If Barack Obama had Texas’s employment numbers nationally, he would be a shoo-in for reelection.
Texas has also long been a political incubator—but at first for Democrats. LBJ made it to the top, and Lloyd Bentsen was the nominee for vice president in 1988. But as California was becoming less Republican, Texas was becoming more so. John Connally personified the trend. He was elected governor of Texas in 1962, the 25th Democrat in a string of 27 to serve in that position before the GOP finally broke through in 1979, more than 100 years after the last Republican governor. Connally went on to serve in the Nixon administration, switched parties, and sought the GOP presidential nomination in 1980 (a campaign that went famously badly; Connally spent a then-princely $11 million and ended up with exactly one delegate). Senator Phil Gramm, another ex-Democrat, sought the GOP presidential nomination in 1996. At the outset, most observers considered him a major contender, and his campaign began promisingly. He tied eventual nominee Bob Dole in the Iowa caucuses before fizzling.
Nobody really thought the 41st president, George H.W. Bush, was a Texan. Bush père was a transplant who’d come to Texas to make his fortune (a forerunner in a long line, it seems). In his first bid for public office, he ran statewide in Texas for a Senate seat in 1964 and lost. But he went on to be elected twice to a Houston House seat before running unsuccessfully for the Senate seat Lloyd Bentsen won.
The generally held view of his oldest son, especially among critics, is that George W. Bush was Texas incarnate. In fact, of course, Bush fils was born in New Haven, Connecticut, and educated at Yale and Harvard Business School. Bush did go all-in for Texas. But in retrospect, it may turn out that he was more Texas than Texas: perhaps a little affected in his “bring ’em on,” “smoke them out of their holes” style and deportment.
In Rick Perry, Texas comes into its own. There is no doubt about where Perry is from. Not Yale, but Texas A&M, as Perry likes to point out. Bush got religion; Perry had it from birth. He has Texas authenticity in a way that Bush never fully did.
Texas’s constitutional structure was long noteworthy for its fairly weak governor’s office. It strengthened under both Bush and Perry, however; it’s now an office in which a good politician can make a difference. The state’s Republican party, meanwhile, has never been stronger, and its fundraising base has never been larger.
Texas is a great launch platform. For the foreseeable future, it’s the premier place to keep an eye on for GOP presidential contenders.
Tod Lindberg, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and editor of Policy Review, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.