A Conversation with Louis Dubose

Louis Dubose
["El Gobernador" TAP Vol. 11 Issue 1] is the editor of The Texas Observer and the co-author (with Molly Ivins) of a forthcoming book on George W. Bush. He recently spoke with Edward Cohn, a staff writer at The American Prospect, about his article on Bush and the Hispanic vote and on Texas politics in general.

EC: Your article describes George W. Bush's campaign to win the Hispanic vote in Texas. Are these efforts a good guide to the future- both in terms of how he'll campaign and in terms of how successful he'll be?

LD: Bush's Hispanic campaign was a calculated effort to prepare for a presidential run. I think it will make some difference. He's going to carry Texas- since the national Democratic party hasn't spent money here for years, and won't this time around- but his effort to court Hispanics could pay off elsewhere, too. Andy Hernandez, a political demographer at St. Mary's University, thinks that it could really make a difference in Midwestern states like Iowa and Illinois. Republicans are courting the Hispanic swing vote there, in states with a growing Hispanic population that hasn't really settled in yet. Bush received 49% of the Hispanic vote statewide in Texas, he'll run on that, he'll run with Emilio- the Tejano singer who's his Mexican icon- and he'll go after that vote. Andy thinks that that's where it could really make a difference, and that sounds logical to me.

In your article, you describe the "striking extent to which Latinos have claimed Bush as one of their own." How did Bush achieve this- through policy arguments, through marketing, or what?

It was not based on policy- except in the sense of policy that was not implemented. I mean, largely Bush is not Pete Wilson. He has not backed any state- wide propositions for English Only, or tried to deny public services to immigrants. He's in favor of bilingual education. In that sense, there is no aggressive anti- Mexicano policy associated with Bush.

The problem is that he's a business conservative, and a lot of his policy decisions result in a great disadvantage for the Hispanic community. I cited in the article the CHIP decision [Children's Health Insurance Program], which will provide health insurance for 500,000 working poor children. He wanted to fund it at a level which would have paid for 300,000 children, immediately eliminating 200,000 kids. That really hurts the Hispanic community, particularly in the lower Rio Grande valley which is the poorest region in the United States. So, there are a lot of policy issues that I think work against Mexican Americans.

His media campaign was brilliant, and that's how he projected himself into the community. He appeared with Emilio. He hired a consultant named Lionel Sosa, who's really the best in the business, for his Spanish- language campaign, and gave him a blank check. He cuts his own ads in Spanish; he's learned to pronounce Spanish much better than the average Gringo politician, something no Republican has ever done. He campaigned in the region of the state that's Mexican- American and spent a lot of money on TV. So, there was really more of an ad campaign than there was policy for Hispanics.

On another level, some analysts have said that Hispanics are a natural constituency for the GOP: they're culturally conservative and potentially receptive to the party's platform on school vouchers or economics. Should we really be surprised at Bush's success?

No, I don't think there's any great surprise there. The Democrats are guilty of ignoring their traditional base. Hispanics- and Mexican Americans in particular- are Catholic. They tend to be anti- abortion. In terms of family values, they tend to be culturally conservative. So in that sense, Bush's success isn't a big surprise.

Economic policy is where the split between Hispanics and Republicans is likely to occur. Texas is an extremely poor state: we're 49th to 50th in per capita spending, we're fifth in poverty, and many of those living in poverty are Mexican- American. Bush has not invested a great deal in programs- he's opposed to affirmative action. He's opposed to any sort of entitlements, such as Medicaid. So when you have that many people living in poverty, in large concentrations along the border, it's pretty clear to me that his economic policy hasn't been good for the Hispanic community.

Has Bush's support in the Hispanic community suffered since the election as a result of these policies?

I don't think so. Part of the reason is that it has not been made an issue in an election. One of the finest pieces I've read about George Bush was an article by John Judis in The New Republic some months ago, in which Judis lays Bush's record out and then admits that none of this makes a great deal of difference unless the Democratic party makes an issue of it. I've talked to people who've done lobbying on behalf of Ernie Cortes's Industrial Areas Foundation in the lower Rio Grande Valley, and when you talk to a highly informed group of civic activists, they know the whole story. But the general public has no idea about issues like this. They have no idea about the governor's position on affirmative action or CHIP. The press can write about it, but a news story comes and goes. Unless the Democrats define an issue, associate it with a candidate, and keep it in the news cycle, most people won't know about it, in either the Hispanic community or the Anglo community.

What issues did the Democrats pursue? Did they just take the Hispanic vote for granted?

The Democrats campaigned like Republicans on issues that are traditionally Republican issues. The most egregious example was John Sharp's Democratic campaign for lieutenant governor, which was aimed at welfare cheats and increased incarceration. People in the lower Rio Grande Valley that I've talked to were really bewildered by Sharp's campaign. Sharp, however, made a calculated decision to count on his Democratic base and go after suburban whites, the swing vote for Democrats in Texas. That's been the Holy Grail for the Democrats ever since [former governor] Ann Richards won the outside- the- loop suburban white vote in Texas. There's not enough money in the Democratic party to court both- to run a traditional turn- out- the- vote effort and at the same time launch a media campaign to convince the suburbs to come over to you. Their decision was to court the suburban vote, and now they're in trouble.

Plus, Texas Democrats are where the Republicans were ten or twenty years ago: they're completely out of power at the executive level. There's no place for Democrats to cultivate new leadership, to hire during non- campaign years, to provide high- level political patronage for the people who run their campaigns. Meanwhile, high- level Republican campaign aides are working at all the state bureaucracies. It's pretty grim for Democrats. This isn't just my analysis- these are the lamentations of many Democrats who've worked in the state's executive bureaucracy.

You've done a lot of your reporting on Bush for The Texas Observer. What sort of publication is that?

We're a political publication focusing on Texas politics. For a quick reference, we're similar to The Nation, but with fewer editorials. Founded in 1954, it's devoted to progressive politics in terms of an editorial position, with investigative journalism and reporting in the front of the book and with coverage of cultural issues in the back of the issue. We also have some coverage of Mexico and extensive coverage of the border.

Around the country, no one's terribly clear on what Bush means when he refers to "compassionate conservatism." Do people in Texas have a better idea?

I don't think anybody has any idea. It is essentially a marketing mechanism that takes the writing of Myron Magnet and of the Manhattan Institute, who is its secular authority, and of a University of Texas professor by the name of Marvin Olasky, who is a Christian Calvinist and a fundamentalist at the same time, and uses it to push Bush's agenda. The "compassionate" part is the marketing component, aimed at the white suburban women the Democrats are also pursuing. I just don't see a political philosophy in it. It uses religion on the one hand and Chicago School economics on the other to make the same argument about dismantling the social safety net. Olasky is an interesting fellow who's nostalgic- and will admit it- for nineteenth- century almshouses, and that's his argument, that charity should be handed over to faith- based charities.

You and Molly Ivins have written a book on Bush's record. What observations can you offer that could help clarify what he'd do as president?

Bush is an unabashed business conservative who has learned the language of the religious right. A good example was a vote at the end of the session where the governor's legislative liaison was attempting to defend the right of industry to pass on 75 to 80 percent of the stranded costs to consumers in his electric utility deregulation bill. One legislator from Houston, Kevin Bailey, proposed an even split in committee- residential consumers of electricity would pay 50 percent, and then industrial and commercial would pay half. At which point the governor's office went berserk, and fought desperately against this pro- consumer issue. When Bush was asked about it the next day, he said it was bad for capital, it was bad for entrepreneurs. That's a pretty naked anti- consumer position, and he maintained it until he lost. I think the same is true on tort reform. Bush embraced it like no one else embraced it; he caught it late, but made it his. We've gone from a system that probably had its abuses to a really anti- consumer system.

So George Bush is a big- business, corporate conservative, and the rest of it is marketing. He is a born- again Christian himself. I think he's completely sincere about that, but I don't think that matters. What really matters- and you can see this in the $56 million he's raised already- is the business of business. And I think you can expect the same in a Bush presidency.

What other issues do you cover in your book?

We look at his record on a number of issues- tort reform, consumer issues, and issues that matter in the Hispanic community, which will be the plurality in Texas by 2008. Another issue we covered was the environment, which (after a long examination) we found to be the issue that the Democrats should run on. Bush's environmental record is as bad as any other governor's in the country, in terms of appointments and in terms of policy.

We've also done both some new reporting and some recapitulation on Bush' personal business record. The guy's only been in government for six years, and prior to that he lost a great deal of other people's money in the oil business. He came to Midland, Texas, with $20,000 and [his uncle] Jonathan Bush's rolodex, so there was this huge infusion of money from Wall Street and from Greenwich, Connecticut. Bush was involved in losing ventures all around. There is a sense that people were buying not in drilling prospects, but in contacts with the vice president of the United States. He went in with $20,000, he lost $3.7 million in other people's money, and he left with $800,000. That's not bad. With that $800,000, he bought into the Texas Rangers for $600,000, where once again his family name was his asset. He sold his interest in the Rangers ten years later, one of the most profitable ball clubs in the major Leagues, and was paid $15 million- which was extraordinary. His MO as a businessman has been to leverage a small amount of money and his family name into a large amount of money for himself. And that's something he's been very successful in.

Any closing thoughts on Bush's record as governor, or on the likely shape of a Bush presidency?

What really has to be said about George Bush is that he has little interest in policy and little interest in governance, and I would predict that if he's elected, his administration would be remarkably similar to Ronald Reagan's, in the sense that he would be a very disengaged president. His policy here is largely staff- driven. He's a great guy- it's hard not to like him. He's the world's most likable governor. In that sense he's also a potential Ronald Reagan in that there's almost a cult of the Bush personality. But he admits that he has little interest in policy. He says he likes to delegate policy decisions to his subordinates and to make sure they're good people. It wouldn't be as ideological, but a Bush presidency would be very similar to the Reagan administration in the way it operates.