Bush was no stranger to such a job, however. Longtime Texas columnist and wag Molly Ivins noted that Texas has a “weak-governor” system. In fact, she argues, not only is the governor not the most powerful statewide official—the office ranks fifth, behind the lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller, and land commissioner. Many observers would disagree with her ranking, but the simple fact is that the Texas governor has relatively little real power.
The state has hundreds of boards and commissions, appointed by the governor. The terms of their leaders often overlap the governor’s term, so new governors can find themselves surrounded—outnumbered and outgunned—by the previous governor’s appointees. Once appointed, most can’t be removed. As Ivins pointed out, however, the job provides a bully pulpit from which the governor can speak—and try to lead.
Despite the weak powers, Bush became a hugely popular governor who was able to campaign for the presidency as a “reformer with results.” In Texas, he built his power by tackling tough issues and building support for them. He took on education reform, pushed through a tough education standards package, and won an increase in local property tax homestead exemptions. Even when there was an easier way out, he fought for what he believed was the right thing to do, in both policy and political terms. For example, with his presidential campaign gearing up, the property tax relief bill lingering in the legislature, and the New Hampshire primary just around the corner, he continued to push for his plan—and won.
For Bush, not only was it a matter of pushing hard for what he believed in; it was also focusing carefully on the key issues. As governor, he said:
To be for everything is to be for nothing.
On education, he found that the state had 50 performance goals. When the administration began, “We had so many goals we had no goals,” said former Bush policy director Vance McMahan. Bush determined to change that with Vision Texas, the state’s strategic plan. The plan set a crisp vision for the state government: “We envision a state where it continues to be true that what Texans can dream, Texans can do,” he declared. The vision was built on four core principles: limited and efficient government, local control, personal responsibility, and support for strong families. Bush used the vision to shape his policy, and aggressively pursued the policy to build his record.
In Washington, however, he had a vastly more difficult job. The presidency has greater potential power, but to use it, Bush had to transform his reservoir of power from a dry hole to a steady supply. He had to find a way to work with a Congress with a sizable number of Democrats convinced he had stolen the election. He had to steer an executive branch that had been in Democratic hands for eight years. He had to try to move the bureaucracy, which is a challenge for every president. Every new president faces some of these challenges. None of them in the last century has faced this daunting combination.