- The Washington Times - Monday, April 19, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COWBOY CONSERVATISM: TEXAS AND THE RISE OF THE MODERN RIGHT
By Sean P. Cunningham
University Press of Kentucky, $40, 320 pages
Reviewed by John R. Coyne Jr.

In the 1960s and 1970s, writes Sean P. Cunningham, assistant professor of history at Texas Tech University, “As the national Democratic Party unraveled … due to political assassinations, rising crime rates, civil disobedience, racial militancy and intensified factionalism … the Texas Democratic Party slowly crumbled while the national Republican Party assumed the mantle of a redefined conservatism….”

Within this context, conservative Republicans convinced Texans that liberalism, to borrow an elegant Agnewvian phrase, was the philosophy of “acid, amnesty and abortion,” and “the Democratic Party was the party of liberalism.”

As a result, conservative Democrats in great numbers joined conservative Republicans in a new alignment built on “a conservative philosophy, personified in Ronald Reagan, championing ‘law and order,’ ‘plain folks Americanism,’ and ‘God-fearing patriotism’ - that … state and national conservatives … used to build a viable and ultimately dominant Texas Republican Party. This was ‘cowboy conservatism.’ ”

By 1980, Texas had become “Reagan Country,” and ultimately, conservative Republicans came to dominate a political landscape that had been Democratic since the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, holding all 27 of its elected offices and carrying George W. Bush to his second term as president with more than 61 percent of the Texas vote.

It’s this process that Mr. Cunningham chronicles, with research drawn from four presidential libraries, gubernatorial papers, interviews and a wealth of local and oral histories, all leavened with rich historical detail and portraits and discussions of the leading figures in recent Texas history and politics - among them, to name just a few, Lyndon Baines Johnson, John Tower, John Connally, Ralph Yarborough, Lloyd Bentsen, George H.W. Bush, Phil Gramm and Bill Clements. Nor were all the movers immediately associated with Texas.

“Few conservative intellectuals had as far-reaching an impact on shaping the ideological convictions of both politicians and the grass roots as William F. Buckley Jr. In March 1967, Buckley, the founder of the influential conservative magazine National Review and descendant of a family with deep roots in Texas, spoke to an audience of Houston conservatives on a subject he dubbed ‘the dilemmas of liberalism.’ …Buckley’s speech [a moral defense of our actions in Vietnam] affirmed in many Texans’ minds the connections between liberalism, weakness, antiwar activism, and the national Democratic Party.”

Mr. Cunningham doesn’t identify himself ideologically or politically. Over the years, he writes, “My own political sensibilities have moderated and matured … though my parents might tell you that ‘I’ve gone lib.’ ” Hardly that, given the evidence in these pages. In fact, there’s a respect for conservatism manifested here - and, refreshingly, none of those cheap shots at George W. Bush that we’ve come to expect from academics. But whatever the ideological inclination, Mr. Cunningham writes with an easy and nonacademic gusto befitting a literary hand from the new national center of conservatism.

“The rise of modern Texas conservatism,” he concludes, “not only coincided with a similar ascendancy nationwide, but also gave the movement shape and momentum. With its unique regional identity and boundless expanse of political bravado, Texas has become the heart of modern conservative Republicanism.”

This November, the eyes of much of the country will be on Texas, where its low-tax and no-state-tax environment has led to unprecedented prosperity during a period of national stress, where the legislature meets for just 90 days a year and public employee unions exercise little or no influence, where education scores are high and superior services are delivered consistently.

And if conservative Republican Rick Perry, already at 10 years in office the longest-serving governor in Texas history, beats former Houston mayor and old-line liberal Bill White for another term, the eyes of the nation may well once again turn to Texas for presidential leadership, cowboy-conservative style.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley, 2007).

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