The state of party leadership

Lost in the noise behind the release of Texas Monthly’s Ten Best and Ten Worst Legislators was a nice feature in the July 2011 issue of Texas Monthly that asked past legislators to talk about the changes they notice between the last session and when they served. I thought the insights  of these “Hall of Fame” legislators were much more interesting that the ratings and rantings of current legislators.

Patricia Gray, a Democrat who represented Galveston from 1992 to 2005, noted that redistricting had enhanced partisanship and added to the challenges facing the work of the Legislature.

The redistricting that took place after I left changed that by creating more safe districts. When you do that for either side, you put the parties in charge. And the parties are dominated by outside elements. They’re not interested in governing; they’re interested in electing.

Partisan redistricting created districts that are generally heavily Republican or heavily Democratic and almost eliminated to legislators who needed to appeal to both voters from both parties. Bill Ratliff, who served in the Senate from 1989 to 2003, noted that the dominance of the base of the parties changed the relationship between the party rank and file and the state’s leadership:

My sense about how the Senate has changed since I left office is that today’s members have a greater fear of the radical elements of both parties. I don’t think that fear exhibited itself in the Bush-Bullock days, because those two men took the brunt of that pressure and allowed the members to work together to reach solutions. I don’t know if that element of protection is there any more.

The role of party leaders in Texas seems very different today in that both parties are driven by grassroots forces. The Democrats have no effective state-wide leaders. The Republicans dominate state politics but no one is able to manage the tensions between the different elements of the party. Perry and other Republican leaders have been better at responding to the grassroots than leading the party in new directions. Perry quickly abandoned  the Trans Texas Corridor and other of his more ambitious ideas when the party’s base rebelled. Speaker Straus saw his credibility with the party base wrecked before this session began.

With moderates slowly drummed out of the political system by partisan gerrymandering, the foundation for compromise is eroding. With not party leaders willing or able to defend compromise to the broader public, many members found it harder to cast votes for compromise policies.

David Silbey, a Republican who represented Waco for a decade, noted the role of a diverse and divisive voices.

Another problem is that members pay too much attention to the websites of folks with the emails of hundreds of readers. I’ve never seen adults get so scared of so little. I think some members worry about what they need to do politically, and that make policy conform to their politics. In the long run that’s bad for Texas. I don’t wan to live in a state where the kids don’t have good public schools, where we’re not building highways, and where we default to the person with the biggest megaphone.

The ability to coordinate power is often mentioned as a key function of political parties. Parties can provide a mechanism that helps the government work together across the divisions created by the separation of powers and bicameralism. That is not always easy.

Today in Texas, the political parties lack mechanisms for resolving internal conflict. The tea party wing of the Republican party is not interested in the leadership of the establishment and most of the state’s elected officials are not interested in risking their political careers on stepping into the middle of the fight.

Hostage SituationWe have a paradox in Texas. The parties are running the state but no one is running the parties. At the top, the state leaders are better at following than leading. At the grassroots level, we have party primaries that involve very few people who may represent a narrow or conflicted set of interests.

Grassroots power in state politics can be a great thing–until you need to determine exactly what is the message from the last election. The Republican party spent a lot of its energy since their November victory trying to decide who deserves credit for the victory and what issues are a priority. The conflict is still evident as some elements of the old GOP base lobby against the sanctuary cities bill that is very popular among the newer party members associated with the tea party movement.

The electioneering that has taken over the legislative process in Texas is evident in the symbolic bills on voter identification and  airport pat-downs in a session when the House found almost no time to debate the budget on the floor. A few hot topics gave both sides a chance to take positions on the issues that would play well with their base constituencies. Meanwhile, the animosity from those debates make working together harder and drowned out important debates about the very real fiscal issues facing the state.

The conflict over the Republican party’s direction  had to be resolved on a bill-by-bill basis during the short 140-day legislative session. The Republicans were remarkably effective at getting some bills through while others legislation floundered in the turbulence.