When Texans Attack: Inadvertently Rejecting Part of George W. Bush’s Legacy

It is no secret that the federal government is unpopular currently. Very unpopular. In fact, the federal government is usually unpopular. People are cranky and Congress’ approval rating, according to recent polls, is in the mid teens. As one politician I used to work for would joke to his audiences, Congress’ approval is so bad only staffers and blood relatives support it. Jokes aside, unpopularity with Washington, D.C. is bleeding over into political races and threatens incumbents of both parties up and down the ballot this November. This was on display in the recent Texas Republican primary where Governor Rick Perry battled Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison for the gubernatorial nomination. Perry ascended to the gubernatorial throne after a guy by the name of George W. Bush resigned to become president. Hutchison has been in the U.S. Senate since 1993. There is no love loss between these two. The campaign was successfully framed by the Perry campaign as a repudiation of Washington overreach and overspending. They tied Hutchison to the D.C. train tracks and ran their campaign freight train right over her Washington credentials, a trait the senator hoped would be a strength.

Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight has an excellent post-mortem on the race today that references one of Perry’s negative advertisements tying Senator Hutchison to Washington. I have included it here because there are some unique characteristics that highlight not only a rejection of Washington’s work, but also how Texas Republicans inadvertently repudiated part of George W. Bush’s legacy.

The $700 billion Wall Street bailout was passed in the final months of the Bush administration as a last ditch attempt to keep the financial market from collapsing amid bankruptcies and market panic regarding large investment banks. It became the Troubled Asset Relief Program, dubbed and pilloried as TARP, and an albatross around the necks of those who voted for it against public opposition. Senator Hutchison was one of those who voted for it. So did then presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama.

For better or worse, TARP became a part of the Bush administration’s legacy, along with an increase in the size and spending of government. The ad says Hutchison has voted with Washington since 1993. For the past 17 years, a Republican occupied the White House for eight of those, meaning that she was casting votes in line with the intentions of a supposedly conservative administration. Additionally, Perry chose to highlight one of those votes during the 47% of Hutchison’s tenure when a Republican sat in the Oval Office.

Perry was wrapping this into a grander narrative about Washington overreaching and “messing with Texas,” but it highlights the selective memory among many who attribute the Wall Street bailout to Obama, when it was the brainchild of the Bush administration and in particular then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.

As usual for a negative ad, there are factual distortions that mask the real purpose for which TARP carried: to save the financial market. The ad states Hutchison “bailed” on Texans by supporting TARP. In fact, the program actually made sure that many loans continued to flow to Texans who needed them for necessary purposes. It should also be noted that almost all of the beneficiaries of the loans have repaid them to date.

The ad operates like a shopper making a sales decision. It uses sticker shock – $700 billion is a lot of money – and when coupled with Perry’s narrative that a government takeover of healthcare will cost $1 trillion and cap and trade legislation will run into the billions, the Washington runs-a-muck message is complete. Hutchison becomes part of the mess and tied to the Obama proposals for healthcare and cap and trade, even though she did not touch either with a ten foot pole.

What about the phrase that Hutchison has voted for more debt? Did she vote for more debt? Yes, in fact. But many of these votes occurred under President Bush’s watch. Tax cuts, two wars, a Department of Homeland Security, prescription drug benefits for Medicare, and TARP all exploded the deficit and increased debt. These are also Bush’s legacy items for which Hutchison supported and Perry threw at her to paint her as outside the fiscal mainstream. The ad cannot possibly insinuate that Hutchison supported higher debt in the Clinton administration when Republicans were opposing his efforts at every turn and the budget was balanced.

Finally, there is the quintessential flip flopper charge that is indirectly leveled at her. Hutchison is heard at the beginning of the ad stating she would not write a $700 billion blank check to anyone, not even Ronald Reagan. The next frame is the next day – October 1, 2008 when she cast a vote for TARP. This tactic was perfected by another Texan, George W. Bush, during the 2004 campaign against Senator John Kerry. Yet, once again, it draws negative attention to a Bush legacy item.

In the process of framing TARP and higher debt as Washington at its worst/spending people’s hard earned money/messing with Texas, Senator Hutchison is tied to not only the proposals of this administration, but those of the last. Whether Texas Republicans realize it or not, they inadvertently rejected the policies of their favorite son by following Governor Perry’s line of argument. Everything is indeed bigger in Texas, but this could be one circumstance where the gulf between a president and his gubernatorial successor may have just widened.