News : Front-runner fatigue

Immigration dominates the discourse at low-energy GOP convention

The conservative movement in America has long drawn energy from the sense that it’s stuck on the outside, its nose pressed against the window of political power. From the California taxpayer revolt of the late 1970s, to the Reagan Revolution, to the Contract With America, the implicit message has been that out-of-touch, tax-and-spend elitists have run off with the country.

That message always resonated more strongly in Texas than anywhere else. In 1968, when Tom Craddick was elected to the Texas House of Representatives, he was one of only eight Republicans in that 150-member legislative body. But Craddick is now the state speaker of the house, and members of the Texas GOP can accurately boast that they reside in the most Republican state in the Union, no small claim at a time when the White House and both houses of Congress are controlled by the GOP.

That might partly explain the palpable lack of enthusiasm in the air at the 2006 Republican Party of Texas Convention, which ran from June 2-3 at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. As speaker after speaker worked to rally the troops and commend them for recent achievements (in 2004, the party won an astounding 80.4 percent of Texas elections that included a Republican on the ballot), the delegates looked vaguely distracted. Walking through the convention hall with their Kay Bailey Hutchison tote bags in tow, chatting on cell phones, and standing in line for bagels and croissants at the concession stands, they often looked more like browsers at North Star Mall than partisans at a political convention.

One delegate attending his fifth convention defined his front-runner fatigue this way: “I can’t sit through all those speakers. I’ve heard them all several times, and they’ve said the exact same things.”

For at least an hour, the convention felt like American Idol with a dollop of God and country, as one singer after another took the stage to belt out “God Bless America,” “The Star Spangled Banner,” and “Texas Our Texas.” When the hall wasn’t deep in song, it found the delegates reciting the amazingly brief pledge to the Texas flag (how many native Texans know that one?), or watching a video montage of Revolutionary War reenactments that gave way to an actor dressed as George Washington delivering an earnest prayer for assistance to Jesus Christ.

Rick Perry posters were prominent in the hall, but many delegates — stung by the business-tax hike in the governor’s school-finance-reform plan — gave Perry the cold shoulder. When a mood-setting video montage showed footage of Perry in action (backed by heroic, John Wayne-style music), the audience was oddly silent. In contrast, a later shot of Hutchison drew an impassioned roar.

Inside the hall, a rebellion against Perry’s tax plan was narrowly squelched. Outside the convention center, an elderly Grimes County delegate named Lee Roy Petersen carried a placard proclaiming “Perry is no Republican” and “Vote Out Perry and Co.” Complaining that Perry enlisted John Sharp, a Democrat, to draft the school-finance proposal, Petersen pointed out that Perry and Sharp served in the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets together, “when they were both Democrats.” (Perry was elected to the state legislature in 1984 as a Democrat.)

“He’s lying to us,” Petersen says. “Perry switched parties to make it easier for him to get elected, but he’s still a Democrat, based on this legislation.”

Perry seemed to sense that some fence-mending was in order, and when he addressed the delegates shortly after noon on Friday, his eager folksiness and gig-’em assertiveness were on high beam. Taking credit for a grocery list of accomplishments that included tort reform, tax relief, school-finance reform, and spending reduction, Perry said: “Texas and America were not founded by cranks who said, ‘We can’t,’ it was created by optimists who said, ‘We can.’”

Like most speakers, Perry avoided any direct mention of President George W. Bush, but he didn’t hesitate to bash the administration on the hot-button issue of this convention: immigration.

When he mentioned that the Department of Homeland Security recently slashed funding for Texas by 31 percent, delegates rained boos on the conventional hall. Perry also boasted that six months before the Bush administration decided to deploy National Guardsmen to bolster border security, Perry had already strengthened the state’s law-enforcement presence on the border. He also joined many of the convention’s speakers in framing unchecked immigration as an invitation to potential terrorists, not merely an economic concern. “The debate on immigration reform is meaningless until the federal government secures our southern borders,” Perry said. “There is no homeland security without border security.”

Perry’s “I’m proud to be a conservative” address calmed some of the discord in the air. “It was very good,” Wade Webster, a Houston delegate, said of Perry’s speech. “I especially liked what he said about the border. I’m real encouraged by that.”

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst followed Perry with a wonkish, bone-dry presentation on the mechanics of the state budget process, prompting a restroom exodus to rival halftime at the AT&T Center. His speech was interrupted for nearly half an hour by a horrible PA snafu that sounded like an Air Force squadron had landed in the conventional hall (the PA announcer asked the crowd to “have the Republican patience” necessary to wait out the problem). Even after Dewhurst returned to the podium, delegates seemed more entranced by Roy “Catfish” Poole, a mustachioed local rancher who walked around the convention center decked out in an authentic 1876 U.S. Cavalry uniform, than by anything Dewhurst said.

If Dewhurst was an advocate for classic Republican values — tight fiscal restraint, low taxes, and free-market entrepreneurship — the biggest applause lines of the weekend targeted the party’s current role as a social watchdog, fighting for traditional marriage, school prayer, and unabashed patriotism.

The biggest slice of red meat came from Tina Benkiser, state Republican party chairwoman. She dubbed Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle “the Earl of Injustice” for his prosecution of Tom DeLay, former U.S. House majority leader. Benkiser also derided what she called a national movement of “multiculturalism and hyphenated Americans,” and proceeded to make the case that in the first two centuries of this country’s history, immigrants “came here to be Americans.” Pausing for emphasis, she added, “And they learned to speak English!”

The last comment drew the most thunderous applause of the weekend, but beyond the fact that it was blatantly inaccurate (first-generation Americans of the 19th and early 20th centuries rarely mastered the language), it felt like a gratuitous shot at Latinos rather than a sober assessment of a complex border problem. But Benkiser’s speech wasn’t meant to win debate points. It was designed to fight complacency, to energize a party that has the power it always wanted, but isn’t enjoying that power quite as much as it thought it would.

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