Texas’s dexterous gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis this morning announced that she was henceforth to be known as a friend of those who, in the inimitably bemused words of the Associated Press, wish to carry a “six-shooter on the street . . . on their hip, in full view, while in public.” At this revelation, the cynics among us chuckled heartily.
Davis’s transition from moderate foe of the NRA to champion of the Second Amendment has been uncommonly swift. When she started out, she had no stated policy on firearms, but, as her backstory has crumbled ignominiously around her, she has started to drift inexorably rightward; first promising to expand the state’s concealed-carry regime if elected, then ensuring that she was seen carrying a shotgun and speaking like a cartoon character, and finally coming out for open carry — a position that, even in a place as independent as Texas, is rejected and disdained by the state Democratic party, by her own would-be lieutenant governor, and by the increasingly vocal anti–Second Amendment group, Moms Demand Action, the lattermost of which had expressed high hopes for her run.
As the Associated Press implied, the transition was a predictable one. “History,” the AP proposed,
suggests that Davis’ position is a pragmatic one. Former Gov. Ann Richards, a Democrat, vetoed a concealed handgun measure, but Republican George W. Bush made it a major campaign issue when he defeated Richards for governor in 1994. Texas passed its concealed handgun law the next year.
In other words: Why lose an election over what is likely an inevitability? Or, as one sweetly persistent Davis fan put it on Twitter today, “This issue would have put a huge Target on her. It did for GovRichards & she lost her 2nd term. I want Wendy to Win.”
It is wholly comprehensible that pragmatic Democratic activists do not wish to see their candidate torpedoed by an issue that is, in truth, of little practical consequence. Indeed, if supporters were not elevating the sentiment “I want Wendy to Win” above the minutiae of Texas’s gun politics, one might start to wonder what was wrong with them. And yet the shift is symptomatic of a general malleability that is becoming a liability. There is, after all, a point at which smartly avoiding controversy becomes counterproductive — nihilistic, even — and at which it indicates one’s having forgotten why one wanted power in the first place. Davis, alas, is beginning to flirt with that line, prompting the unavoidable question of what, precisely, she is offering that will recommend her to the public at large.
At the outset, the answer to this question was that Davis is running to publicize the alleged restrictions on abortion in her state, and to repeal the law that she spent eleven hours attempting to filibuster last summer. Is it any longer? Not really, no. Indeed, if one’s knowledge of Davis were sourced solely after her candidacy was announced, one would struggle to know that she is pro-choice at all. Jonah Goldberg correctly noted last week that we have become all-too accustomed to the friends of abortion flatly refusing to talk about their standpoint, and that it is now customary for advocates to fall back on euphemism and indignation. He is right: One could fill an entire library with examples of such obfuscation. Nevertheless, few advocates have gone so far as actually to say in public, “I am pro-life,” as Davis did in January. Nor, typically, do pro-choice politicians run away from their position in toto. It is presumably of considerable embarrassment to Davis’s early champions that nowhere on her campaign website is there a shred of evidence of the filibuster that brought her to national prominence, invited the praise of a president, and briefly convinced the kids at the Daily Kos that Texas might soon be turned blue. “Reproductive justice” apostles, are thou not a touch disheartened?
Davis’s omission is clearly not the product of an aversion to the word “filibuster,” for another, less famous performance is presented center-stage in her literature. “In 2011,” the “Education” section proclaims proudly, “Wendy filibustered a budget that cut over $5 billion from education funding and she has continued to fight tirelessly to restore that funding to education.”
Education being a priority that is certain to get heads nodding, so far, so good. And yet, on closer inspection, Davis doesn’t really seem to be that interested in “restoring funding” at all, preferring instead to stick to the platitudinal, boilerplate assurances on which politicians of all stripes have come to rely. “Texas families cannot thrive and we cannot sustain our economic growth if we don’t invest in the next generation of Texans,” her campaign website warns. As such, Davis “wants to ensure that “every young person has access to the same opportunities that she did and so our future generations can make Texas even better than it is today.” Okay, great. But, one might ask, “As opposed to what?”
The Dallas Morning News reports that Davis has criticized her opponent, Attorney General Greg Abbott, for “defending more than $5 billion in cuts the 2011 Legislature made to public schools,” a position that Abbott claims (rather conveniently, it should be said) was merely a “part of his job as attorney general.” But what is Davis’s alternative to this alleged betrayal? She’s not quite sure. Despite the professed passion for reform, the Morning News records, “Davis didn’t say how she would pay for her education proposals, but ruled out a tax increase.”
Of late, Davis has been doing a lot of ruling out tax increases. Per the Sun Herald, she is on record promising “to veto a state income tax to pay for public schools”; per the Daily Texan, she “has been adamantly against raising sales or property taxes”; and, per ABC, she has threatened to reject any tax-increasing budget that might hit her desk. Her one revenue-raising idea, eliminating sales-tax exemptions, may look good on paper (albeit primarily to eyes that are willing to pretend this isn’t a tax increase), but in practice it is something of a chimera. Despite being repeatedly and directly asked, Davis has notably failed to mention any exemptions that she would be willing to eliminate. Which leaves her only with the promise to “improve public schools by reducing the number of standardized tests students are forced to take, and by negotiating the first cost-of-living increase for retired teachers in more than a decade.” All well and good if that’s your thing. But hardly the stuff of which campaign dreams are made.
Other than education, Davis has stated three main priorities for Texas. She wants a “strong economy,” she wants “government accountability,” and she likes “veterans,” too. And, well, that’s about it. Frankly, progressives could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about and, too, forgiven for cocking a skeptical eye and taking a closer look at why she left the Republican party at the exact moment that its political fortunes began to decline. As the Daily Beast’s Michelle Cottle wrote in January, when Davis announced her switch and ran for office, “many local Dems complained that she was not liberal enough.” They had good cause for concern: Her abortion extremism to one side, she’s not much of anything politically. Among her previous achievements? Supporting fracking rights for the energy industry; “[opposing] a property-tax freeze for seniors; and [pushing] public-safety unions to reduce pension packages.” Che Guevara she is not.
All of which is to ask, “What, exactly, is her appeal?” Love or loathe her opponent, he is offering an ambitious, clear, open manifesto that includes “ending Obamacare” by “fighting and repealing an unconstitutional tax”; “enacting strong voter ID laws”; limiting the power of the EPA, which he terms a “runaway federal agency that must be reined in”; and vigorously defending the Tenth Amendment by continuing to file “lawsuits against the Obama Administration to protect Texas’ sovereignty.” Moreover, unlike Davis, Abbott doesn’t have a trust problem. Can she overcome the difference?
“Fame is a bee / It has a song / It has a sting / Ah, too, it has a wing,” Emily Dickinson once wrote. There is a lesson in there, especially for a culture that moves now at the pace of the thunderbolt. Wendy Davis sang her song and, without examination or pause, was given her wings. They have carried her far. Now, alas, it is time for the sting, and at this rate it looks likely to burn hard and burn fast. What was the case for her again?
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.