If nothing else, the inauguration of George W. Bush as the state's 46th governor served to once again set the dreary state of the Texas Democratic Party in bold relief. With the November 8 GOPslide having receded into a painful memory for Democrats, half the party seems to still be in free fall and plotting purges and the rest has switched from bipartisan to transpartisan drag, echoing the GOP's anti-federal rhetoric and contemplating political sex-change operations.
With Bill Clinton buddy Ann Richards gone and Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock at the apex of what remains of the sputtering Democratic power grid, the president might find a more hospitable reception at a military base in Jesse Helms' neck of the woods than in the Lone Star State.
While Bush reveled in his ascent from Texas Rangers frontman to the state's chief executive, the inauguration provided Bullock with a stage to preen his conservative plumage and his open delight at the demise of the liberal cult that coalesced around Richards.
In fact, amid all the yawns provoked by Bush's low-key inaugural, the only act that seemed to have any real pizzazz was the quartet of George and Laura and Bob and Jan. The boys bonded boisterously, complimenting each other's "lovely wife," while the wives gazed adoringly at their men. The macho pseudo-secessionist remarks drew generous applause. It almost seemed antebellum.
The best line in the speechifying came from a dead Californian. "To quote John Steinbeck, 'Texas is a state of mind, not a state of the union,'" Bullock told the inaugural-ball crowd at Austin's Frank Erwin Center. The only food for thought in Bush's low-cal inaugural address focused on sending a blunt message to Washington that Texans can run Texas and, of course, his campaign tag line: "What Texans can dream, Texans can do."
The inauguration and first few days of the Bush administration left absolutely no doubt that the new governor is a dream come true for Bullock, who's pleased as punch that he has a real Texas boy to relate to -- instead of Richards and her self-contained circle of good ol' girls. Bullock could hardly keep his hands off the new governor, while Bush demonstrated an almost unseemly appreciation for Bullock's spouse, at one point describing Jan Bullock as "a lot prettier than he is and prettier than many Texas women." With all the "lovely little lady" comments in vogue, it seemed as if Richards' brand of feminism was just a dream Texas had during a four-year slumber.
"I think there's some good chemistry between him and the governor," observed Tony Profitt, Bullock's political pointman, in a deadpan understatement. "Ann had a lot of star qualities about her and always kind of moved in her own aura with a large following. I think Bush is more to Bullock's style: Pragmatic.Straightforward. Just a guy-type deal."
The differences in the working relationship between the lieutenant governor and the new and old governors were visible even before Bush and Bullock took their oaths of office.
"They've had more face-to-face meetings since Bush was elected than [Bullock] had with Richards the whole time that Richards was governor," says Profitt. "Richards seldom called a meeting to say, 'Bob, let's talk about it.' The communications are going to be much better."
While Richards and Bullock shared some history, such as their status as recovering alcoholics, Bullock charted a course as an independent and generally kept his distance from her on the campaign trail in both her gubernatorial bids.
"They had a contentious relationship and that's just the way it was," Austin political consultant Bill Miller says of Richards and Bullock. "What Bullock was saying to George [at the inaugural] was, 'I don't want to be contentious with you. I want to work with you.' And here we go."
Richards also tended to stick to the symbolic, hoarding her popularity. Bush is giving every indication he wants to get down in the sandbox and play with the boys of the Legislature.
"Ann was not an activist governor at the legislative level," says Miller. "She didn't even prepare budgets. She let Bullock do it. Bush is giving signs he's going to be an activist, and if someone's going to be an activist, you want to be activated with them."
Bush and Bullock are expected to work together on a number of issues the new governor pushed in his campaign -- welfare reform, a school voucher program, tort reform and revising the state's juvenile code. Bullock also did his new buddy a favor by informing Richards' interim insurance commissioner, Rebecca Lightsey, that he would support no major regulatory initiatives until Bush's pick to replace her, Elton Bomer, was on board.
Aside from the George and Bob duet, the inaugural lacked fizz from beginning to end. The largest of the three balls at the Erwin Center never reached critical mass, despite an indoor fireworks display, a sappy "Texas, Our Texas" slide show, some decent country and western music, and cascades of balloons and confetti.
Democratic state Representative Ron Wilson arrived at the basketball field house just as Mark Ballew finished belting out, "Your Daddy Don't Live in Hell, He Lives in Houston." The lawmaker from inner-city Houston found most of the crowd chatting quietly or sitting on their hands in the stands, and he gazed deeply into the desert of soul on the dance floor before executing a fast break for the door.
"Just got here," he said, "and now I'm going home."
"Republicans just don't know how to get down and boogie," observed another Democrat who showed up for the nominally bipartisan affair. "It's like the movie, White Men Can't Jump. Well, 'Elephants Can't Party.'"
The state's new first mom and dad, Barbara and George, skipped the bash, and even Houston Mayor Bob Lanier and wife Elyse found better places to be, like a University of Houston reception and an early hotel bed.
A very smug Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack, one of the few who openly predicted a Republican landslide in Harris County before the election, held court in one clutch and opined that the state's Democrats would never get it together in time for the 1998 elections. And besides, Radack has more worthy opponents to consider, such as new County Judge Robert Eckels, a fellow Republican. Asked how long it would take for the two to have a major confrontation, he laughed and replied, "Oh, about two weeks."
You know an event is low-energy when it fails to draw any significant protests from the fringe of either party. The most heart-stopping inaugural moment was the deafening 21-gun salute that set kids to screaming and adults chuckling nervously at the swearing-in ceremony on the Capitol grounds. The crowd there was a fraction of the mob that attended Richards' swearing-in, and the Richards' "people's parade" from Town Lake to the Capitol was replicated by lines of limousines. The spectacular rough-hewn granite facade of the Capitol, like a cute child actor or clever pet in a boring movie, practically stole the show.
Afterward, along the thinly lined parade route [by Richards' inaugural standards] down Congress Avenue, a jeans-clad couple from the leftish Peace and Justice League chatted desultorily with a geezer from the Texas National Guard's tank brigade. One lone soul attempted to burn a flag, but hardly anyone noticed. The religious right was nowhere to be found. Where were those fetus posters when you actually needed them to liven up a show?
It was the odd and the mildly curious image that stuck in the mind, like a longish-haired Reverend Billy Graham delivering the invocation. Graham could have passed for an aging lounge lizard who had just stumbled out of an R&B bar on Sixth Street to do the honors.
As the parade streamed by, a handful of viewers watched from Democrat consultant George Shipley's office above Congress Avenue. Shipley, after his work for Richards, is temporarily in a far outer orbit in terms of influence in the Bush-Bullock regime. He was giving no interviews and the party chatter was strictly off the record, which is just as well since much of it was X-rated. But several days later he was willing to expand on the structural problems facing Democrats:
''The fact of the matter is that, demographically, the Democratic Party is now the minority party in Texas. We have lost the suburbs, we are unable to turn out our base, our mechanics are obsolete, activists have lost their enthusiasm, and we are not successfully recruiting young people into the ranks of party activists in the number needed to water the grassroots."
Otherwise, things must be okay for Democrats.
In the meantime, as the party struggles to right itself and figure what, if anything, it stands for, would a key Democratic leader such as Bullock be tempted to join the swelling ranks of GOP officeholders?
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"Not necessarily," says Bullock spokesman Profitt after a pause. "But then again, I think you can see Bob Bullock as being a reflection of the average Texan, who is not overly zealous about either party, because the parties, except as a way to get your name on the ballot, seem to have almost outlived their usefulness for the discussion of ideas, and have become vehicles for the destruction of ideas."
Profitt's line of thinking dovetails with that of another Democratic insider, who says a "post-partisan era" has dawned in Texas government.
"The only way that you govern states with emerging parties of one side or another is in the post-partisan mode, where you very specifically and overtly reject hard-charging partisan models, and I think Bullock in many ways symbolizes that. In Bullock's view, the partisanship stops at the Austin city limits. He has rejected any personal involvement in redistricting over the years, or other things where one party has sought advantage over the other."
So is Profitt's boss leading the way to political transpartisanship?
"Uh, that sounds like he's got a sexual dysfunction," Profitt replied.
Maybe so, but what Democrats can dream, Democrats can do. Like turning themselves into Republicans. And for some, it won't take a lot of imagination.