06/11/2012 09:34 am ET Updated Aug 11, 2012

The Trouble With Texas

If you live east of the Mississippi or north of the Red River, you have probably had a few laughs about Texas. New Yorkers, who are convinced the planet disappears on the other side of the Hudson, tend to see Texans as caricatures from pulp fiction cowboy novels. We drive pickups or ride horses to the grocery store, drink too much beer (demonstrably true) and limit our culture to the rodeo (which was invented in Pecos) and Friday night football. A touch of the Hollywood version of Texas is true but a strong cliché always kills clear thinking.

There has been a political meme making the rounds for decades that Texas also has undue influence over the policies and economy of the rest of the nation, which begs the question: How can we be such bumpkins and also control America's destiny? Gail Collins argues this Texas influence a bit inelegantly in her new book, As Texas Goes, an analytical endeavor that violates an important belief by Texans that no outlander can truly understand what happens on our sacred soil. Hell, we don't even understand it so you can't comprehend the state after a few visits and reading documents produced by your researchers.

Let's just run with the premise, though. If America thinks Texas is a crystal ball for the future, the nation's optimism is about to get a gritty test. Regardless of the zeal with which Rick Perry bumbled across the primary states talking about the greatness of Texas, we've got a hot mess on our hands. In higher education, Perry convinced the conservative legislature to deregulate university tuition. The argument was the old one about making schools compete with each other and driving down fees, which, of course, didn't happen. Education at state-sponsored universities in Texas is getting beyond the reach of middle class families. Rick Perry, though, has a new issue, which he created; the governor is criticizing university administrators for raising tuition even after he presided over a nine percent cut in their budgets and deregulated tuition. The governor may have invented a new kind of circular insanity: change the law to let them set their own tuition rates and then criticize them for doing it after you take away a big chunk of their money.

In public schools, he just took their money. The number of teachers who lost their jobs under Perry's budget bashing is not precisely known but estimates range from 50-75,000. Four billion dollars was lopped off the education appropriations, which means those fewer teachers will have bigger classes and many schools will close, and, as part of the extremism to avoid taxes to tee up his presidential campaign, 43,000 college students lost all or part of their financial aid, and scholarships were completely eliminated for 29,000 low income kids. Texas already has the highest number of residents over 25 without a high school diploma, but that figure isn't sufficient for Mr. Perry. His education cuts are also expected to eliminate 100,000 private sector jobs while the state's population is projected to increase 1500 people per day.

The apocalyptic planning wasn't just for one budget cycle, though. The state's Legislative Budget Board, which is headed by Lt. Governor David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Strauss, both Republicans, has just sent instructions to every government agency in the state of Texas to plan for another ten percent reduction in their budgets. What does this mean in a state that has the highest percent in the nation of uninsured children and overall population? Texas is so stingy with matching payments that it is 49th in percentage of low-income residents covered by Medicaid but is, nonetheless, 48th in the percent of workers covered by employee health care and last in workers' compensation coverage. Expect us to move up all of the sad charts as another ten percent whack comes along.

Political backlash for the state's extremism is almost nonexistent. In fact, Dewhurst, who is running for the U.S. Senate, was roundly booed at the Texas GOP convention in Fort Worth over the weekend for being a moderate. He is in a runoff against Ted Cruz, an attorney who believes deeply in the Tea Party, and also a conspiracy to rid America of its golf courses (seriously), which is a nightmarish specter for many Republicans. Whenever Rick Perry mentioned Dewhurst in his speech, the delegates booed. The governor, whose best workouts come from running away from reporters, yelled over his shoulder to inquiries that he thought they were chanting "Dew." They weren't. Dewhurst spent about $9 million to get into a runoff with Cruz and there is a possibility the excited Tea Partiers might flood the polling booths. At a minimum, they appear to be exercising increasing influence on the Texas GOP. The cutting might just be getting started.

This has the potential to be good news for Texas Democrats if there were any indications they were delivering a different message and fielding candidates. Instead, the Texas Democratic Party's identity, according to private research, appears to come from the national party's brand. Voters might be upset with what Rick Perry's low-intellect campaign did to the state's image but they apparently have no real idea what the other side believes or how it might run the Texas government.

The Democrats held their annual state convention in Houston over the weekend and the commentary and reportage and tweet streams and Facebook posts indicated few energizing moments for the party. Joaquin and Julian Castro of San Antonio, a state representative who is likely to win a congressional seat, and his twin brother, who is mayor of Alamo City, are darlings of the party's future and have great political promise. Kirk Watson of Austin and Wendy Davis of Fort Worth, both state senators with political will, can also invigorate the Democrats. When, though, is this going to happen and will the government be rendered vestigial and obscenely derelict by the far right before sanity can gain a majority?

A part of the notion of turnaround for the Democrats in Texas is built on the idea that political influence is all but over for Anglos. Statistically, that has already happened in public schools. Houston's Anglo student population is just 8 percent and Dallas is 5 percent. Fort Bend County, which is just outside of Houston, has gone from 40 percent white in 2000 to 19 percent today. On the border in Laredo, there are 24,788 students in the public schools and only 81 of them are Anglo. The good news is that Hispanic voters have historically tended to prefer Democratic candidates but their turnout has never lived up to either expectations or potential. The right to vote is important but it is irrelevant without a reason to vote.

There is a certain mythology that has attached itself to Texas. Like all good myths, it has a germ of truth. The people of this state are very close to their history and there is a residue of the frontier ethic in modern endeavors, which means you make it on your own or you die, unless your neighbors step in to offer assistance. The concept of rugged individualism was vital 150 years ago when Stephen F. Austin was luring settlers to what was an unforgiving environment. But it doesn't work in 2012 in a land of millions.

And it damn sure ain't no way to run a country.

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