Mike Kueber's Blog

November 12, 2010

Joe Straus – the post-partisan, patrician Speaker

Two years ago, a lot of people voted for Democrat Barack Obama because he packaged himself as a post-partisan president.  Boy, were we disappointed.  At that same time, Republican Joe Straus became the Speaker of the Texas House on the basis of the same post-partisan marketing.  But Straus didn’t disappoint.  By most accounts, Straus’s first session as House Speaker was a refreshing success compared to the partisan bickering that infested previous sessions.  And now Republicans have strengthened their hold on the Texas House, so you might think that Straus’s job would be secure.  That would be wrong.  To understand why no good deed shall go unpunished, you have to understand how Straus got to be Speaker in the first place. 

The Texas House consists of 150 representatives.  In 2008, the Republicans barely held on to their majority – 76 to 74 – and this caused some dissension in the Republican ranks.  The incumbent speaker, Tom Craddick, was a crusty, hardcore conservative, and a “gang of eleven” Republican moderates decided to put forward a challenger to Craddick.  After an internal debate, the moderates decided on Joe Straus, even though Straus had served only one full 2-year term in the House.  Instead of trying to recruit additional Republican supporters, Straus and the gang of eleven persuaded the entire Democratic caucus to support Straus.  This combination provided the majority necessary to elect Speaker Straus, and he, in turn, rewarded the Democrats by giving them 16 of 34 committee chairmanships. 

You have to credit the Democrats with playing their cards expertly, considering that they were outnumbered in the House by 76 to 74.  A major factor in their success, however, is the Texas tradition of electing the Speaker by a vote of the entire chamber, not by a vote of the majority-party caucus, and it is not unheard of to have committee chairmen from a minority party.      

Because of the Republican landslide in 2010, the party numbers will be significantly different when the House convenes again in January.  There will be only 51 Democrats opposing 99 Republicans.  Thus, the Republicans will be firmly in charge, and the question is whether conservative Republicans will exact their revenge on the gang of eleven moderates. 

So far, conservative Warren Chisum has announced that he will challenge Straus for the speaker’s gavel, and there are reports that Chisum and Straus are using improper threats and promises to secure endorsements.  Further, websites accuse Straus of being a RINO or pro-choice.  Although Straus denies the charges, a magazine profile notes that “he considers himself pro-life, just not a proselytizing one.”  That sounds Clintonesque and suggests support for Roe v. Wade. 

What do I think of Joe Straus?  I like his core conservative principles and his pragmatic style.  I like that he is a family man with a business career, not a career politician.  Although I’ve never meet Joe, I worked with his wife Julie for several years at USAA.  From 2000-2004, I was on the USAA PAC Board of Directors while Julie Straus worked for us as an outside consultant.  I had the opportunity to have several in-depth political discussions with her and found her thoughtful, open-minded, and warm.  She and Joe seem like a perfect match.

I have one problem with Joe – i.e., he seems to be from the aristocracy.  According to his bio, his family has been involved in Texas horse breeding and horse racing for almost a century.  His dad has owned horses that placed in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.  His mom is a famed fundraiser for politicians and charities.  After graduating from a private college in Tennessee, Joe obtained patronage positions in the Reagan and Bush administrations.  (Incidentally, Joe met his wife Julie while she was working for Treasury Secretary James Baker.)  Even if Texans won’t countenance royalty, it seems that the Bush, Baker, and Straus clans come awfully close to aristocracy.   

For the Republican Party to maintain its majority status, it needs to represent middle-class and working-class Americans, and let Democrats represent the welfare class.  Unfortunately, upper-class Americans insist on controlling both parties, especially the Republican Party.  While we are the big-tent party and are happy to receive the upper-class vote, we shouldn’t allow them to buy control of the party, or even worse, allow them to assume leadership of the party.  Talk about damaging our brand. 

Joe is probably a fine guy, but how can he relate to the middle-class and working-class voters?  We need leaders who are “of the people” – leaders like Reagan, Nixon, and Ike.

P.S., I don’t envy any person serving in the Texas House this session.  There is a projected budget shortfall of at least $15 billion that needs to be eliminated without raising taxes or touching our $9 billion rainy-day fund.  Talk about a thankless job.

P.S.S., a third Republican just threw his hat into the ring – Ken Paxton.  His announcement said the Republican majority has “a unique opportunity and an obligation to do more than simply balance the budget without raising taxes.”  Talk about chutzpah.

August 29, 2010

America as a republic

When I started my congressional campaign, I quickly experienced two incidents that made me think about what it means for America to be a republic.  The first incident occurred when I read the platform of the Republican Party of Texas.  The platform contained a plank stating its opposition to initiative (a law created directly by the voters) and referendum (a law directly overturned by the voters).  That plank shocked me.  As an anti-establishment person, I had always considered grassroots activity to be a good thing, and nothing could be more grassroots, anti-establishment than initiative and referendum.  The second incident occurred during my first newspaper interview.  A reporter asked me what I would do if my constituents felt one way about a proposed law and I felt another way.  I responded that in most situations I would vote my best judgment, but in some situations where my constituents had a good understanding of the issue I would defer to their judgment.  Later in the campaign, it occurred to me that both of these incidents related to America as a republic. 

Although I majored in political science in college, I have long since forgotten a lot of the nuances to various types of government.  A quick refresher on the meaning of “republic” revealed that the term generally has been used to distinguish between government by a person (monarchy) and government by the people (republic).  When Ben Franklin was asked to describe the type of government created by our Constitution, he said, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”  The father of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison, elaborated further by describing the American republic as a representative democracy instead of a direct democracy.  That is really the crux of what was involved in my two campaign incidents – i.e., what sort of representative democracy is best for America?

Initiatives and referendums are a form of direct democracy authorized in 24 states, and they enable voters to do something that their elected representatives have failed to do.  Obviously, initiatives and referendums wouldn’t be necessary if reps did what their constituents wanted, but the Republic tradition in America often causes reps to use their best judgment instead of their constituents’ judgment.  That was the question essentially posed to me in my first newspaper interview.  (Also, some reps allow their votes to be corrupted by campaign contributions.)  In my opinion, many social issues – such as abortion, gun control, and same-sex marriage – clearly fit into this category of constituent-driven positions, but some economic issues do to – e.g., a national sales tax. 

My anti-establishment tendencies pre-dispose me to like initiatives and referendum, but I have seen the danger of demagoguery in some situations, especially with draconian taxing limitations in California and Massachusetts.  This danger should not, however, make us afraid to give the people want they want.  We should be more concerned about frustrated, disillusioned citizens than we should be about citizens who don’t know what’s good for them.  There’s only one thing worse than elected reps telling the people that the reps know what’s best is for the people, and that is for unelected judges telling people that the judges know what’s best for the people.  Such arrogance threatens the fundamental legitimacy of government, without which our government can’t survive.

July 27, 2010

Death knell for affirmative action?

The Republican Party of Texas has taken a lot of heat for some of the extreme positions it has taken in its 2010 platform, especially its position that homosexuality is deviant behavior that must not be recognized as an acceptable alternative lifestyle.  But their platform position on Affirmative Action is dead-on. 

  • Affirmative Action – Inasmuch as the Civil Rights Movement argued against using race as a factor in American life, affirmative action reintroduces race as a powerful force in American life. The Republican Party of Texas believes in equal opportunity for all American citizens without regard to race or gender. To that end, we oppose affirmative action because
    1. We believe it is simply racism disguised as a social value.
    2. We believe that policies that lower standards on the basis of race or gender create a disincentive to excellence and thereby encourage mediocrity.
    3. We believe that rights belong to people – not groups; therefore, we reject the notion of group-rights and policies that grant preferences based on race or gender. Policies of this type apply a blanket remedy before specific acts of discrimination are proven; thus, such policies compound one injustice with another.
    4. Affirmative action falsely casts those who advocate merit as racist.
    5. Affirmative action casts doubt on minority achievement making such achievement as seemingly unearned. We believe that true minority advancement will come from a demand for personal responsibility, accountability and competitive excellence.

Of course, the Republican Party position has been opposed by the liberal left because the left doesn’t think the playing field in America is level and they think a bit of government interference will make for more equal opportunity.

This debate has been going on for decades, ever since Kennedy and Johnson issued executive orders in the 60s requiring some forms of so-called affirmative action.  Conservative opponents called it reverse discrimination and have consistently challenged it on Equal Protection grounds.  In 1978, there was an important Supreme Court decision – Bd. of Regents v. Bakke – that approved affirmative action, but not quotas, in medical-school admissions.  Twenty-five years later, the Court looked at this matter again in Grutter v. Bollinger.  Although the Court in Grutter re-approved racial preferences, it felt such strong reservations about the concept that it stated the preferences must be limited in time and should not be around 25 years later.

Perhaps we won’t have to wait 25 years. 

This past Friday, there was an important op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal written by Senator James Webb, D-VA, titled “Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege,” and subtitled “America still owes a debt to its black citizens, but government programs to help all ‘people of color’ are unfair. They should end.”  http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703724104575379630952309408.html?mod=WSJ_article_related.  This is an important piece because Webb is a well-respected liberal Democrat and powerful African-American Congressman James Clyburn has said he agrees with Webb.    

Webb’s piece followed a similar NYTimes article that was published last month regarding diversity or affirmative action in France.  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/01/world/europe/01ecoles.html?pagewanted=1.  The article reported that the French are trying to create more diversity in their best schools, but, “There is a serious question about how to measure diversity in a country where every citizen is presumed equal and there are no official statistics based on race, religion or ethnicity….  A goal cannot be called a ‘quota,’ which has an odor of the United States and affirmative action….  But the effort is being met with concerns from the grandes écoles, who fear it could dilute standards, and is stirring anger among the French at large, who fear it runs counter to a French ideal of a meritocracy blind to race, religion and ethnicity.”

Thus, we appear to have liberal Democrats, the French government, and the Republican Party of Texas speaking with the same voice regarding affirmative action.  Amazing.

May 23, 2010

Career Politicians

Career politicians are a pox on America’s government, and the voters know it.  

Our Founding Fathers established a republic form of government in the hope that voters would elect leaders with integrity and solid values.  Career politicians have neither.  Instead, they pander to the electorate, and their values change like the political winds.   

The problem is getting rid of them.  Term limits would help immensely, and our Founding Fathers certainly would have adopted term limits if they had envisioned this scourge.  But getting politicians to enact their own death sentences is unlikely, as the Texas Republicans have proved.     

The platform of Republican Party of Texas (RPT) is a grassroots product, and it has a plank endorsing term limits.  The RPT of Texas fills every statewide elected position and controls both houses of the legislature, so you would think that these people could enact some modest limit on terms.  But they haven’t.  They haven’t even tried.  Talk about cognitive dissonance. 

People want a return of the citizen legislator, the normal person with a full life and integrity and values who reluctantly decides to run for office as a service to the community, someone like “Mr. Smith goes to Washington.”  People don’t want a career politician who refuses to talk straight and whose values depend on the latest polls; whose only goal is to stay in office. 

The political aristocracy argues that voters have the ability to fire career politicians at any time by simply voting them out of office.  But this fails to recognize the powers of incumbency, such as money and name recognition.  In the absence of term limits, the best thing for voters to do is stop aspiring career politicians before they acquire the power of incumbency.

How do you detect an aspiring career politician?  The consuming motivation of a career politician is to stay popular, not to do the right thing.  Thus, a career politician will consistently take the popular position and when there is no popular position, the career politician will use a lot of weasel words to take a non-position. 

Also, because career politicians lack integrity and conviction, their positions will deviate over time to reflect the political wind.  This character flaw is harder to detect in young politicians because they have no record, so I have developed an additional fool-proof detector for young career politicians – i.e., running for the student counsel.

As most people know, running for the student counsel is a game played by aspiring career politicians.  Because these offices are so superficial and meaningless, there can be no reasonable argument that students are involved as a public service.  There can be no denial that their involvement is based solely on vanity and ego. 

So, if you ever have the opportunity to vote on a former student-body president, please just say “no thanks.”