Despite polls showing Bill White closing in on Rick Perry, the question I keep getting on the governor’s race is, “Can Bill White win?” Perry has defeated Democrats and Republicans, populists and conservatives, established statewide officeholders and billionaire outsiders. And in this year's primary, he beat not only the most popular politician in Texas in U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison but the Bush team, most of whom were backing her.
So can White, mayor emeritus of Houston, do it? It will take an act of God.
I managed Chris Bell’s campaign in 2006, and if losing campaigns and screwing up makes someone smarter, then I have my Ph.D. in getting my ass kicked by Perry. He’s the Texas Republican whom Democrats love to hate, but no one has ever sniffed his margin of error by making fun of him. If ridiculing him was a winning strategy, the late and very clever Kelly Fero would have guided John Sharp to a blowout win in the lieutenant governor's race in 1998. By consistently and easily winning re-election despite high job-disapproval ratings, Perry has proven that he is the most talented Texas politician since Lyndon Johnson. His campaigns are disciplined, ruthless, well-funded and, with few exceptions, perfectly executed.
It’s the rare exceptions in his execution that White must seize on to beat him, and the last couple of weeks have offered two openings that have found the Democratic standard-bearer a bit flat-footed. To beat Perry, that must change.
The first gift was Perry’s revelation of his jogging hunt. Perry bragged about shooting the coyote on April 27 and quickly this became the most famous Texas Republican hunting snafu since Dick Cheney had a couple of beers and shot his friend in the face. The incident made national news in the way people never want to make national news.
Did White’s campaign staff give the press hunting safety vests with his campaign's logo? Did they push T-shirts on their website to bring in small-dollar donors? Did they even try to talk about hunting and Second Amendment rights? Nope. White out.
The reason was probably that they wanted to set the table for the release of their first general election TV ad. But the problem isn’t that people didn’t take White’s ad seriously when it came out — it’s that few took notice. To paraphrase Billy Lee Brammer, Texas is impossibly large, and the opportunities to get people to actively pay attention are impossibly rare.
No sense dwelling on that lost opportunity, though, because another one came right around the corner with Perry’s idiotically ill-informed contention that the BP oil spill was an “act of God.” (Let us pause now for the lawyers among us to recite the “act of God" definition so we can move on.) A national, energy-related tragedy would seem to be tailor-made for a former deputy energy secretary.
Instead of something bespeaking the results-oriented executive leadership he displayed as Houston's mayor, his campaign released a nine-page memo. Really? On what, no one really cares. They could have had Sudoku on page 9 and no one would ever notice. There should be a cash prize for reading it and passing a quiz. White was correct in that this was a perfect opportunity to display his policy mastery and promise of a greener, more prosperous future for Texas, but his response marginalized him at a time when Perry threatened to compound his error.
You can’t beat Perry by being the other White meat. There’s not a sentient being in Texas who doesn’t believe White would better steer the ship of state than Perry, but that’s largely irrelevant. To beat him, you have to beat the politician. To beat him, White has to fight more skillfully and take greater advantage of the rare openings he’s given.
Can Bill be nimble? Can Bill be quick? Can Bill get off the stick?
Jason Stanford is a Democratic political consultant who has a Bill White sign in his yard.