Now that we've passed through the bulk of the media's writing about Bill White's absence from meeting with, appearing with, or being within 250 miles of President Barack Obama, I'd like to offer a perspective that I've refrained from writing over the past couple of weeks.
I'd like to preface these remarks by stating this post is entirely an editorial commentary, one readers should feel free to agree or disagree with. They are not intended to counter or support great thoughts offered by other writers on staff, in particular Todd Hill's posts here and here. It is simply to engage in some thoughts, not about this particular action by White, but what it may or may not signal for the campaign or for a potential White administration.
Let's begin with what is widely known or accepted. Barack Obama has seen a precipitous drop in job approval in Texas going from a 62/35 positive rating at the start of his presidency in January of 2009 to a 33/61 negative margin (pdf) about a year later in February of 2010. And assuming that Texas is reflective relatively to generic national tracking polls, Obama's approval ratings from February haven't gotten any better.
So on its face, it would seem the political decision made by White to not associate or appear with the president was very much indeed about the politics. But the White campaign went far out of their way to make the point that they really weren't like that Obama guy and distanced himself both physically by hundreds of miles, but on style and policy merits as well.
- Dallas Morning News: “I was in the oil and gas business when he was a community organizer,” White said, bringing his bid for governor to East Texas.
“There are some people, including me, who believe that the president is spending a lot more money than we're taking in, is spending too much money in Washington,” White said in an interview.
“I don't believe in borrowing so much money. When I served as the chief operating officer of a federal department, I cut the budget. And now you see the budgets of other Cabinet departments go up.”
- Houston Chronicle: “I don't rely on national political figures to introduce me to the people of my state.” (A statement contradicted by White's June endorsement and supportive statement by former President Bill Clinton.)
- Austin American-Statesman: “White has said that he is against the federal health care law because of how it could affect the federal deficit and that he opposes cap-and-trade legislation. He calls himself a fiscal conservative and has been critical of spending and borrowing by the federal government, but he believes that because the stimulus package is a done deal, Texas leaders should work to maximize federal dollars for the state, White spokeswoman Katy Bacon said.
The White campaign did have prior scheduled campaign stops as they noted in the earliest press responses, but campaigns have many options for how they can accommodate those arrangements- possibly a phone call, a separately schedule sit down meeting, or simply attending the President's speech as a participant where you could simply comment on the merits of Obama's higher education goals (something that would be very in tune with White's education oriented agenda). It's possible to balance the worries of being beaten over the head by Perry about a White-Obama lovefest without depressing base activists who still appreciate and support the work of the President.
There was no compromise here which is what is frustrating for many Democratic activists and Obama volunteers I've talked to, including those involved with statewide organizing. The fear of association and worry about about an iconic Obama/White photograph won out with an assumption that the base cares more about defeating Rick Perry and understands this was a tough spot for White.
The White campaign is probably right, after all, it's a similar tactic used by Barack Obama himself in the 2008 campaign through today. Democrats were so tired of Bush/McCain and so interested in winning that Obama was able to compromise and even advocate continuing certain Bush era policies. Voters projected any number of beliefs onto Obama; he was anything you wanted him to be- liberal, pragmatic, post-partisan and it didn't matter because the bigger picture demanded that we simply defeat the Republicans in order to have any chance about changing the direction of the country.
The same thing is true in Texas- the base cares about winning above all else, and it's why at the end of the day, White made the political decision that he did, and why it was the right one in his view to take. Yes, Bill White could have been handled far better. Yes, White's approach flew in the face of his primary campaign theme that he's above “politics as usual”. Yes, Perry had a field day with it and White gave him a rare win in the summer news cycle. But in the grand scheme of the campaign, it will be of minor importance to the final outcome on November 2nd because the Democratic base in Texas cares more about winning. They recognize that it can't elect better Democrats until it elects any Democrats.
That's why Democrats frustrated with Bill White should forgive him. But it's also why progressive Democrats frustrated with Bill White should remember, because there will come a day where such behavior and policy critiques will be unacceptable- a day when we are politically powerful enough to choose better Democrats and influence candidate behavior.
So forgive, but remember, as we work to elect Bill White in November.