By David Hill - 06/22/05 12:00 AM EDT
Judith Martin’s self-anointment as America’s “Miss Manners” may be challenged by the actions of a United States senator. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s recent announcement that she won’t challenge Texas Gov. Rick Perry is an act of etiquette and civility that qualifies her to be — at the very least — Mrs. Manners.
After months of decisionmaking, Hutchison chose to run for reelection to the United States Senate rather than engage an incumbent in what some though would be a nasty intra-party war.
The pressure on Hutchison to run was doubtless intense. Perry, President Bush’s successor in the governor’s office, has struggled to lead the Texas Legislature to find solutions for recessionary budget shortfalls and a means of financing public education. The state is also in a fight to save numerous military facilities that the base realignment and closure process has threatened.
Some influential Texans and Republican insiders have felt that Hutchison would handle these matters better than Perry. Perry obviously disagreed and made it clear that he was in the race no matter what Hutchison decided to do. And some of the governor’s operatives tried to foreshadow a campaign in which Hutchison would be portrayed as a social moderate-to-liberal ally and associate of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
The potential for ugliness in such a contest could not be underestimated. And the fact that contestants would have spent $50 million ensured that everyone would have been splattered with mud.
Despite the anticipated nastiness of the potential primary, I don’t know anyone around Texas politics who believes Sen. Hutchison would have lost to Rick Perry. Hutchison is a certifiable conservative who has served her party and her Texan president with grace and distinction. She is arguably the most popular figure in Texas politics today. That’s saying a lot.
Laura Bush is probably the only man or woman who would have higher favorable ratings. Barbara Bush would be in the popular mix, too. No male even approaches the 70 percent favorable ratings that Hutchison routinely garners in polls. Numbers like those would have formed such a formidable defense around Sen. Hutchison that Perry’s anticipated attacks would never have penetrated.
But Miss Manners herself had something to say about such situations in her 2002 book Star Spangled Manners. Martin wrote that “pushing people around because you are powerful enough to get away with it is, by definition, rude.” Rude is something that Sen. Hutchison definitely is not.
Hutchison was also doubtless mindful of the effect a divisive primary would have had on the party and the state. A struggle between Perry and the senator would have made everyone uncomfortable and harmed the sense of community in our party. Challenging an incumbent from your own party would violate informal rules of civility, thereby threatening the political order. That’s how etiquette looks at things.
Politics, of course, looks at this situation very differently. When Democrats ruled Texas elections, there were lots of ugly intra-party primary contests. Securing the Democratic nomination was tantamount to winning the general election, so you couldn’t always allow every incumbent a free ride in the primary.
I have thought Republicans, now the dominant party, would also fall into this manner of thinking. And perhaps we will. Carole Keeton Strayhorn, Texas controller and a Republican, announced last weekend that she will challenge Perry. But Hutchison made a different decision and ultimately paid tribute to the rules of etiquette that have served our party well.
Critics of etiquette sometimes think the days of Emily Post and her kind are past. They argue that nice guys (and gals) will finish last in our hypercompetitive world.
I think that Kay Bailey Hutchison’s gallant exhibition of etiquette will ultimately open new doors for her. Until those opportunities materialize appear, the Senate will provide avenues for her leadership. But ultimately, Hutchison’s good manners will be rewarded politically.
Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.