This article originally appeared in the San Antonio Express-News
Bill Clements came out of nowhere.
Sure, he had founded the world’s largest oil and gas drilling company from scratch, and had been widely viewed as the finest general manager of the Pentagon as acting or deputy secretary of defense from 1973-1977, but in Texas he was largely unknown.
Clements came from humble roots. He was the most popular boy at Highland Park High School, class president and an all-state football player, but during the depths of the Great Depression his father filed for bankruptcy.
Instead of going to SMU on a full scholarship to play football, Clements got on a bus right after he graduated from high school at 17 and began a career in the oil and gas industry roughnecking in South Texas.
Despite immense success in four fields — business, national security policy, politics and philanthropy — he never forgot his humble roots. In 1978, Clements was a refreshing change from the career-politician Democratic machinery that dominated Texas politics.
After defeating Ray Hutchison decisively in the Republican primary, Clements faced Texas Attorney General John Hill in the general election. Clements began the race behind more than 50 points. His victory in November 1978 was probably the greatest upset in Texas political history. No one saw it coming.
And yet, a bitter split between liberal and conservative Democrats set the stage for a sea change in Texas politics. Two men made it happen, one Democrat and one Republican.
Lyndon Baines Johnson tightrope-walked the chasm between liberal and conservative Democratic politics for decades, successfully. Until his presidency.
As president, Johnson embraced liberal ideology, passing progressive legislation through the Great Society and his War on Poverty. Johnson exacerbated the liberal-conservative divide among Democrats, embittering conservatives, which led to his protégé John Connally switching parties as Richard Nixon’s treasury secretary, and culminating in liberal Hill defeating incumbent Gov. Dolph Briscoe in the 1978 Democratic primary.
Briscoe’s loss cracked open the door to Texas becoming a two-party state, although this was not evident in the moment.
Clements kicked the door open. He initiated business best practices to politics, had a county chairman in all 254 Texas counties for the first time in history and applied cutting-edge technology (at the time) to his campaign operation, just as he had in his business, SEDCO.
Through force of personality, a quintessential Texas life story, financial resources and identification with mainstream Texas voters, Clements squeaked out his victory by approximately 17,000 votes. Janie Briscoe’s endorsement and Gov. Briscoe’s implied endorsement didn’t hurt, either.
During his first term in office, Clements applied the same best practices to running state government: eliminating thousands of redundant government jobs, streamlining state operations and leaving the state with a $1 billion surplus at the end of his first term.
Clements was and is widely viewed as one of the most astute governors in history at appointing the best of the best to statewide boards and commissions.
Among his thousands of appointees were many Republicans but also conservative Democrats, many of whom converted to the Republican Party over time. Despite a defeat in 1982 at the depths of a severe national recession with 11 percent unemployment, Clements roared back in 1986, securing a second term and becoming the longest-serving governor in Texas history.
Republicans, in large part due to Clements’ labors and legacy, as of 2022 will have held every executive or judicial branch statewide office for 24 years straight, a dominant track record exemplifying Texas’ evolution from a two-party to one-party state.
More than any other leader, Clements paved the way for the limited government, conservative, businesslike approach to state government that Republicans have utilized as their political playbook ever since.
Today, as in 1978, the dominant state political party is split, between mainstream Reagan-Clements Republicans and libertarian Republicans, which, if possible, is more conservative and certainly more divisive than Reagan-Clements Republicanism.
If Republicans are to maintain their dominance in state politics and government, they will have to heal their divisions and appeal to a broader coalition of Texans, many of whom are apolitical while culturally and fiscally conservative.
Intraparty squabbles over trivial differences appear to have cracked open the door for Texas Democrats, who as a group are significantly more liberal than their predecessors of a generation ago.
Texans demand effective limited government, not aimless disputes and grievances for political posturing alone. A wise person once said those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. Texan Republicans would be wise, 40 years after Clements’ historic victory, to remember his legacy and what happened in 1978, or face a reversal of fortune in short order.
Clements was always most concerned about what was in the best interests of Texas and for the common good of all Texans, above political party or selfish agendas.
He viewed himself as the heir to the early Texas settlers who called themselves “Texians.” Texians were personified by their love of liberty, fierce personal autonomy, and willingness to fight for a free, independent and strong Texas.
A Texian perspective as exhibited by Gov. Clements would be the prime model for future state success, for Texas Republicans and all of Texas. Otherwise, a two-party state and Democratic resurgence may prove inevitable in the near future.
George Seay is a seventh-generation Texan, founder and chairman of Annandale Capital, a global investment firm, and founder of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He lives in Dallas with his wife, Gretchen, and their six children.