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Texas mulls defeat in battle of ideas

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, Texas

Hilmar Moore, Mayor of Richmond, Texas and his statue
Hilmar Moore is probably the longest-serving elected official in the US

In 1949, around the time the Berlin airlift was ending, Britain was winding down clothes rationing and George Orwell was publishing 1984, the townspeople of Richmond, Texas, took a momentous step of their own - they elected Hilmar Moore to the job of mayor.

Mr Moore, a rancher and businessman, has remained in office ever since, making him almost certainly the longest-serving elected official in the United States.

He is, I think, the only person I have ever seen standing beside a statue of himself.

The merchants of Richmond recently paid for a slightly-larger-than-life bronze likeness of the mayor which stands proudly just a short distance from the front door of his office.

Mr Moore, a frugal guardian of the public purse, is quick to point out that the statue did not cost a cent of local taxpayers' money.

Words of advice

Harry Truman was just beginning his second term as president when Mr Moore was first elected, and America is about to inaugurate its twelfth president since then, so it seemed like a good idea to ask him what advice he would offer the new incumbent in the White House.

Do the most good you can for the most people, with the money you have
Hilmar Moore, Mayor of Richmond

Mr Moore, an independent in a largely Republican state, is impressed by Barack Obama's intelligence and fluency and scathing of what he sees as the reckless adventurism of his fellow-Texan George W Bush in Iraq.

He has had time to think about the essence of government and over the years he has boiled it down to this: "Do the most good you can for the most people, with the money you have."

That is a kind of catechism for pragmatists, but we had travelled to Texas to see how a state which voted Republican again (as it nearly always does) had reacted to what amounts to a resounding defeat in a battle of ideas.

In Campaign 2008, America essentially rejected a familiar offering from Republicans - small government and smaller taxes - in favour of a rather different vision from Barack Obama, an intelligent technocrat who represents the belief that government, properly directed, can be a force for good.

'No atheists in foxholes'

Two factors helped him: first George W Bush was not very good at producing smaller government.

He did cut taxes, but if you do that without cutting spending at the same time you end up with huge budget deficits.

Roadside advert for grand piano in Houston
Luxury goods are still in demand in Houston

And then of course, during the sudden banking crisis very few voices were raised in favour of letting every bank brought low by its own greed or folly simply go bust.

In the same way that it's said there are no atheists in foxholes, it turns out there are not too many swashbuckling free-marketeers in recessions either.

Many of the voices that did advance that brutal philosophy though were raised in Texas.

Congressman Ted Poe attacked the original concept of the banking bailout with the words: "Small businesses, mom and pop grocery stores don't get this break when they make bad financial decisions - they go out of business. But the rich and famous Wall Street fat cats expect Joe Sixpack to buck it up and pay for all this nonsense."

Texas is still Texas and while Democrats can point to good returns in the presidential race in some key areas (including Houston) this is still a red state.

So there are still plenty of Republican voters to defend the ideas which underlie American conservative politics (even if none of them seemed prepared to argue that Mr Bush had done a good job with the economy).

'Trickle-down' economics

I met the businessman Frank Jordan at a Chamber of Commerce lunch in the town of Liberty Texas.

Frank Jordan, businessman from Texas
I don't believe that the government has demonstrated that it does anything all that incredibly well from education to welfare to anything other than the defence of the country
Frank Jordan, businessman

He is still a stout defender of the philosophy behind "trickle-down" economics which is the theory that if the state leaves money untaxed in the hands of wealthy private citizens then they will spend money and spread prosperity.

The idea may have crashed to a resounding defeat at the ballot-box but Mr Jordan is undaunted.

"I'd rather have trickle-down prosperity than trickle-up poverty. I don't believe that the government has demonstrated that it does anything all that incredibly well from education to welfare to anything other than the defence of the country," he argues.

The bottom line in all of this is that Republicans lost the election for a whole variety of reasons.

An unpopular outgoing president, a tired-looking candidate, and the iron fact that incumbent parties do not win during recessions all spring to mind.

But the circumstances of the moment were surely an overwhelming factor.

Pendulum swings

The depth of the financial crisis prompted even George W Bush's administration into planning to use vast amounts of state money in an extensive programme of intervention.

A voter could be forgiven for concluding that if state intervention is going to be the order of the day then you may as well elect a political party that believes in it, and a presidential candidate who can provide a thoughtful rationale for it.

Downtown Houston
Downtown Houston has avoided the economic downturn so far

The political scientist Bob Stein who has been analysing the results of the election has detected an interesting trend among the data which reflects the mood of the times and puts it like this: "Attacking government per se is not going to advantage any candidate any more.

"People are going to want to know, 'What are you going to do to fix it?' and Obama simply was at the right place at the right time and was the most articulate of spokespersons on this," says Mr Stein.

So this time around Texas remained defiantly Republican while the pendulum of American politics swung the other way.

There is no telling when the pendulum will move back but it is clear that for now outside the Lone Star State America is a cold house for ideas of small government, small tax and limited state regulation which for now at least, are seen to have failed.

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