The Republican governor of Texas, who would be president, was a buoyant man today, sounding proud and grinning at times as he spoke of the achievements of the state's just-ended legislative session. The biggest success by far: $2.1 billion in new education spending and $1.8 billion in tax relief.
All in one neatly balanced budget.
"Democrats and Republicans worked together for what was best for our state," Gov. George W. Bush told a crowded news conference. It was the morning after the adjournment of the most crucial lawmaking session of his political life -- not only for what was accomplished, but for how. Bipartisanship was the key, said Bush, who got much, but not all, of what he wanted in the session. He praised members of both parties, and made sure to include himself, for his leadership and consensus-building.
When he begins campaigning soon, and GOP voters beyond Texas look to this year's session for clues to his talents and philosophy, Bush said, they will see more than big tax cuts and education improvements. "They will know that I've set clear goals and worked with people from both parties to achieve the goals," he said.
But how accurately can those voters judge Bush as a bipartisan conciliator based on his performance here in 1999? The Texas economy -- like the country's -- is booming. The state's projected budget surplus is $6.4 billion for the next two years. The hardest choices in the mostly pain-free 76th Texas Legislature had to do with dividing those riches, finding an agreeable combination of what nearly everyone, Republican and Democrat, wanted: a lot of new spending on schools and significant tax relief.
"I'm sure the governor will go to Iowa and New Hampshire and take credit for the work done by Democrats," said Molly Beth Malcolm, Texas's Democratic chairman.
Yet Bush was introduced this morning by a Democratic friend, state Rep. Robert Junell, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "I think one of the greatest things about him is, he knows how to build consensus," said Junell. "Some leaders try to bully, or they grandstand. Governor Bush works in the spirit of cooperation."
And Bush, discussing his dealmaking style, said, "One of the amazing things I've learned is that you can listen to somebody else without sacrificing principle -- that you can stand on principle and yet find common ground for what's best for Texas."
He mentioned, for example, his commitment to improving public schools. But a reporter asked: Would he have pushed so hard for new education spending this year, brokering whatever deals were necessary, if the increase would have meant a tax hike?
"The facts are the facts," he said. "Given the state of the economy today, I prioritized public ed. I've prioritized public ed ever since I've been governor."
What about Congress? It was suggested to Bush that dealing with Capitol Hill likely would be vastly more difficult than negotiating with the traditionally bipartisan Texas legislature in flush economic times. "I've asked myself this question," he said. "Can an administration change the tone of Washington, D.C. . . . put what's best for the country ahead of partisan politics? And I believe an administration can change the tone. And that's what I intend to try to convince people that I'm going to do."
So now, with the session behind him, off he goes, seeking the White House. Almost.
"I'm going to test the waters," Bush said, still not publicly committing himself to a campaign, despite his wide lead in early GOP polls. "I'm fully committed to start traveling the country. . . . I want to look people in the eye and shake their hands and let them know what's in my heart, and hear what they have to say, as well. I've had a pretty good indication that behind the polls there's some pretty good support. . . . I look forward to starting to move around the country and to get to feel the pulse myself."
His GOP opponents, not to mention Democrats, have been waiting.
In a salvo immediately after the two chambers adjourned on Monday, Malcolm said, "While the governor sat in his yellow rose garden hosting [presidential fund-raising] visitors from across the state line, Democrats were focused on matters across the street, winning the battle for Texas."
One GOP legislative success that Bush did not bring up today was the defeat of a proposal to enhance penalties for crimes motivated by hatred of specified groups -- including homosexuals. Bush took no position on the bill during the session, and he would have faced a political dilemma had he been forced to sign or veto it. Republicans killed the measure, sparing him trouble.
In a session "shadowed by the governor's national political agenda," Malcolm said, "Republicans led the fight to stop a bill that would have sent a clear message to the whole nation that our great state will not tolerate crimes motivated by hate and prejudice."
Bush replied briefly today that he opposes laws that provide special protection to some victims but not others in similar criminal cases. Otherwise, though, the governor appeared in no mood for political jousting. That will come later.
Asked if there was anything more he wished he could have accomplished in the legislature, he joked that the biennial session just ended "may not be my last." Presidential voters, Bush said, "may not like what they see. So they may send me back here, in which case that'll be my state of the state address in the year 2001."
Tonight, Bush offered a preview of his long-awaited campaign, telling an exuberant group of contributors in San Antonio, "I can't wait to get moving. I've got a lot to say."
"You know I believe in specific agendas," said Bush, who already has been criticized by his rivals for being vague on major issues. Bush said, however, that before he details his plans for tax cuts or national defense or education, he wants to establish the broad themes and positive tone that will be the foundation of his White House bid.
"I think it's important for our party to look at candidates and determine who's a uniter, not a divider," an emotional Bush told the fund-raiser audience. "Who has proven that they know how to bring people together based upon common consensus?"
Bush said he would attempt to "elevate the dialogue" through a "positive, forthright and hopeful" message and made clear he makes changing the culture of politics in Washington a central theme. "I believe in positive campaigns," Bush said, adding, "The campaigns of personal destruction must end."
Staff writers Dan Balz and David Von Drehle in San Antonio contributed to this report.
CAPTION: A Democrat cited Texas Gov. George W. Bush's "spirit of cooperation."