12/29/2011 11:33 am ET Updated Feb 28, 2012

Rx for TX: More Elvis, Less Explaining

The latest Iowa polls predict Gov. Rick Perry will finish out of the running.

You know things are going badly for Perry when Ron Paul feels sorry for him, but I'll let others write his political obituary. I want the results of the autopsy so Democrats can re-create the murder scene when Perry comes home to Texas.

Ed Espinoza has a theory that's worth testing. He moved to Texas this year after doing hard time in Washington for the Democratic National Committee as the Western political director. He helped turn Nevada blue for Obama in 2008, and now he's set up shop in Austin as a political consultant and frequent CNN commentator. He has enough national experience to notice something in Perry's presidential failure that helps explain his success in Texas.

"Texas is not like the rest of the country, which we already knew. It's unique -- it's a different mindset," he told me over coffee the other day. "In Texas, voters seem to identify less with policy and more with attitude. Historical figures like Lyndon Johnson had a swagger that exemplified that attitude. And when you look at Rick Perry, he embodies just that -- big on attitude, thin on policy."

I'm not sure Perry is as thin on policy as he is thin on experience explaining it, much less defending his proposals. But Espinoza's dead on when it comes to Perry's swagger. Remember that goofy ad in 2006 when Perry squinted at the camera and said, "I'm proud of Texas. How 'bout you?"

It was nearly impossible for me to watch that back then and not feel smug, assured in my intellectual superiority. And that, says Espinoza, is part of the problem.

"We try to outsmart our opponents by proving we're smarter. We need to stop trying to prove we're smarter and just be smarter," Espinoza said.

For too long, the Texas Democratic message has done better in the opinion polls than at the polls. We expect voters to sit still and let us convince them that we're right. And as much as Texans are willing to believe that Republicans are wrong, they keep electing them.

I've lost count of the opinion polls showing that most Texans share Democratic positions on stem cell research, political censorship of public school curriculum standards, sex ed and innumerable other issues. But at closing time, Texans keep going home with Republicans.

You could fill a week's worth of newspapers with examples of losing Texas Democrats who thought being right was a point worth proving, and a good number of them would be my clients acting on my advice. When it comes down to it, we'd rather be right than fight.

The solution isn't dumbing issues down, acting conservative, or composing a unifying Democratic slogan that mainstreams our message. Most Texans already agree with us, but they aren't voting for us. It might be time for Texas Democrats to stop trying to persuade people who already agree with us. If we stopped lecturing and started being likeable, we might actually start winning some statewide races.

"We're not an issue-less state, (where) people don't care about anything. People do care about issues, but they are less likely to listen to someone they don't like or identify with," Espinoza said. "They're finding ways to identify with lay people who aren't real political. We do a better job of building relationships with people who are engaged. Problem is, those people don't outnumber the others."

Think back to the last time we had someone with a little Elvis at the top of the ticket and you remember the last time we had a Democrat in the governor's mansion.

When it comes down to it, we need the charismatic rock star of Ann Richards in 1990 and less of the hectoring scold of 1994. More Presley, less professor. A little less conversation, a little more action.

But that's just what Ed Espinoza thinks. All he did last year was to help re-elect two unpopular Democratic Senators, so what does he know? Any day now, what we've been doing for the last 20 years is bound to start working.

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