Political Lives: California Vs. Texas

The meeting between President George W. Bush of Texas and Gov. Gray Davis of California was billed as a discussion on energy. But it also was the perfect emblem for the defining conflict in American politics today: the Californian model vs. the Texan model.

Our public life always has been powered by the friction of opposing theories of morality, economics or regional allegiance; North vs. South; big states vs. little states; slavery vs. abolition; tariffs vs. trade; "hard" money vs. "soft"; isolationism vs. world leadership. These days, California vs. Texas is the friction of choice: the most populous states (Texas officially became No. 2 in the 2000 Census); twin anchors of opposing political parties (California for Democrats, Texas for the Republicans); home to fundamentally differing views on issues such as energy production, the environment, zoning, business regulation, tobacco, the death penalty and religion in public life. There's a personal element, too. Reared in Texas and a veteran of two terms as governor there, President Bush already is laying the groundwork for a reelection campaign in 2004. Gov. Davis, elected in 1998, is struggling to keep hope alive for his own reelection in 2002. If he can manage to do so in the face of the state's worst energy crisis-and don't count him out-he'll be a leading contender to face Bush two years later. The California-Texas face-off is not without irony. Demographically, at least, the two states are becoming more similar. The Census found the population in both is one-fourth Mexican-American and one-third Hispanic overall. California last year become the first big state with a "majority-minority" population; Texas will be next in 2005. Few Anglo politicians in either states can afford to be ignorant of Spanish any longer, and few wouldn't benefit from a working knowledge of what's going in Mexico. It's also ironic that the two states have flipped places politically in the last generation. California, which swung Republican and conservative in the '60s, gave rise to the likes of Richard Nixon, anti-tax crusader Howard Jarvis and, of course, Ronald Reagan. The Golden State was the base of the Sunbelt GOP, Goldwater to Gingrich. Texas, in those days, was the Southern home of Democratic Party populism, led by the likes of House Speaker Sam Rayburn and President Lyndon Johnson. The Great Society wasn't born in Texas, but it was made possible by the power base that LBJ built there. Now it's exactly the opposite. California is effectively home base for the Democratic Party. It's where the most money comes from to pay for Democratic campaigns (think Hollywood and West L.A.); the state with two female Democrats in the Senate; the state that sends more Democrats to the House than any other; and one of the only major states in the nation with a Democratic governor in the state house.

Last fall, Bush's campaign chairman in California, Gerald Parsky, begged and pleaded with strategy guru Karl Rove to send the GOP candidate into the state for a campaign swing. Bush finally did go. It didn't matter: Al Gore won California by a million votes.

That seems to have affected Rove's attitude once he and his boss got to the White House. Bush visited 29 other states as president before he bothered going to California.

Texas, meanwhile, has become the most reliably-and fervently-Republican megastate. Bush in 1998 led a sweep of GOP candidates into statewide offices, the first time that had ever happened. Dallas, Austin and Houston (where the former president, George H.W. Bush lives) are to Republican fundraising what L.A. is to the Dems. Texas will get two new House seats as a result of population growth. Both are likely to go to the GOP.

But the differences these days run far deeper than party affiliation. Take a look at energy and environmental issues. California is the home of NIMBY, which isn't a mascot but a philosophy: "not in my back yard." As everyone now knows, there hasn't been a major power plant built in the state in a dozen years; in that span they built perhaps 20 in Texas. Republican strategists as far back as Reagan guru Stuart Spencer have long advised GOP candidates to adopt as green a stance as they can. In the 1998 governors race, Republican strategists considered advocating the construction of new power plants. Then they ran the numbers. "The 'anti' vote was off the chart," one GOP strategist recently told me. "We tossed that idea away in a hurry."

Californians are, by nature, more comfortable with the idea of regulating business. Local zoning rules are strong throughout the state; in many parts of Texas they barely exist. There isn't a bar in California where patrons are allowed to smoke cigarettes; there are very few in Texas where they can't. Several cities in California have municipally owned power companies-Los Angeles is only the largest and best known. That's a rarity in Texas, where most of the nation's largest energy companies are based. The California legislature is suing the Feds in an effort to force price "caps" on wholesale power shipped into the state. Texas's legislature would be more likely to declare allegiance to Mexico than to impose price caps on anything.

Texans aren't above begging the Feds for help. They just like to do it rather quietly, and in an obscure fashion. For years the federal tax code was jury-rigged by Texas pols to protect the oil-depletion allowance. But Texans, from George W. Bush on down, are bred to worship the ideal of the pitiless markets, in which suffering through the boom and bust of free enterprise is supposed to be good for the soul of man. That's what happens in the oil fields: You make a fortune, lose a fortune and make another.

In the Texas view, Californians are risk-adverse enviro-wimps who designed a laughably bad auction system for the purchase of out-of-state power and should bear the consequences of their own stupidity-at whatever price they have to pay.

And in Texas, they have plenty of power. The state's electric utilities not only have been building power plants aggressively, they're keeping the abundant power in-state. Texas's utilities deliberately designed the Texas Grid to make out-of-state connections difficult. The idea is to lure manufacturing plants into to the Lone Star State.

It's working. Guess where Silicon Valley is looking to put its next wave of chip-making facilities?

You guessed it: Texas.

Political Lives: California Vs. Texas | News