By TIM NICKENS
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 23, 2000
AUSTIN, Texas -- Down at Capitol Saddlery, where a big black boot hangs over the door and saddles have been sold and repaired since 1930, there is no air conditioning, no waiting -- and no patience for Al Gore's attacks on Texas.
"The people who come in here are so proud of our state, they just don't understand it," said clerk B.J. Slover from behind the counter. "We don't talk about him much down here."
But Gore is talking plenty about Texas.
The bumper stickers warning "Don't Mess With Texas" can be seen on dark Mercedes, rusted pick-ups and everything in between. But the vice president's message is that Texas is a mess.
Gore was at it again last week, invading San Antonio to blast Bush about a state budget problem that will require tapping into a reserve account. Bush responded with a volley from the Governor's Mansion, and it does not sound as though the Lone Star State is on the brink of financial collapse no matter how loudly Gore rings the alarm.
By attacking Texas, Gore is copying a technique used by Bush's father with mixed success.
In 1988, George Bush beat up Michael Dukakis for his record as governor of Massachusetts. He tied Dukakis to pollution in Boston Harbor, and the charge stuck. So much for the "Massachusetts Miracle" that Dukakis promoted.
Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political science professor, said the criticism connected with voters because it validated the uneasy feelings they already had about Dukakis. With Republicans throwing more mud on Dukakis for supporting a prison furlough program that led to the infamous Willie Horton incident, the Democrat's fate was sealed.
In 1992, President Bush also picked away at Bill Clinton's record as governor of Arkansas. That failed to stop Clinton, who could claim that his state had made modest gains in education and other areas under his leadership even if it still was near the bottom in some rankings.
"Given what he had to work with down there," Buchanan said of Clinton, "he probably did okay. They're not the 11th largest economy in the world, like Texas. There is the tax base here to make Texas competitive with all of the mega-states."
But it's not, as Gore often likes to point out.
Last year, the Children's Rights Council rated Texas 48th among 50 states as a place to raise children. It ranks No. 2 out of 50 in uninsured children, 47th in SAT scores and 45th in the portion of residents who have graduated from high school.
Even number 3 in deaths from asthma, Gore claimed last week.
Texas does lead the nation in some rankings. For instance, it's first in executions.
Gore also has pointed out that Texas has led the country in toxic releases into the environment in the late '90s, and that Houston's air was judged to be the nation's dirtiest last summer.
"What is not said," Bush said in a recent interview with the St. Petersburg Times and a handful of other newspapers in key states, "is the Clinton-appointed EPA deputy here says for the last five years air quality has improved in the state of Texas. This is politics. I understand that."
But it is starting to irritate the Texas governor.
Gore's campaign has seized upon the state's budget battles as a way to portray Bush as reckless and irresponsible. Texas officials expect cost overruns of more than $600-million, primarily because of larger-than-expected expenses in Medicaid costs and in prisons.
That is small change in a $99-billion state budget that covers two years. Bush and most Texas legislative leaders say the cost overruns easily can be covered by a $1.4-billion budget surplus, and they point out that such adjustments are relatively common.
"He should be ashamed," Bush told reporters last week after Gore's news conference.
Compared to Florida's reserves, about $1-billion for a $50-billion annual budget, the Texas surplus appears to be a bit light. But it hardly seems to be the crisis Gore portrays it.
Yet facts don't often stand in the way of a good campaign issue. Gore has chosen the budget wrangling as a way to warn voters of the consequences of Bush's love for tax cuts. By tying the $1.7-billion in tax cuts approved by the governor and Texas legislators last year to the budget shortfalls, Gore can reinforce his criticism of Bush's proposed federal tax cuts as too risky.
"How the governor runs Texas says important things about how he would run the country," said Mark Fabiani, a deputy campaign manager for the Gore campaign. "If Gov. Bush doesn't have what it takes to run Texas, how does he possibly have what it takes to run the country?"
Bush's record as governor should be scrutinized closely. It's relatively short, nearly six years, and it's the only one he has in government. The danger is in putting too much weight on simplistic examples such as the budget fight and on national rankings based on questionable data. Texas was a low-tax state that resisted heavy investment in the environment and social services long before Bush moved into the Governor's Mansion.
The better approach is to analyze Bush's choices as governor as the presidential campaign unfolds and his skill at pushing his agenda and working with legislators. Why tax cuts instead of more spending on children's health insurance? Why a voluntary system for bringing some polluting industrial plants into line and not mandatory requirements?
"Texans have got great pride in our state, so maybe some of the criticism raises a little bit of extra dander, but that's politics," Bush said. "I expected that to be the case. For every accusation there is a retort, and I'll defend our record in the state of Texas."
Gore will give him plenty of opportunities.