Sympathy for the Serious Social Cons
The news that Greg Abbott will not call a special session on gay marriage should not have been a surprise to anyone. I wouldn’t even call this a “decision” on the governor’s part, really. In addition to the fact that Abbott has never cited gay marriage as the most serious issue facing Texas today, he is clearly a reasonable adult, and would therefore be unlikely to see it as such. Plus, the Lege had plenty of opportunities to pass anti-gay legislation, and declined all of them; that’s not a particularly ambiguous result, or one that seems like an accident.
Still, the news was a serious disappointment to some of Texas’s most ardent social conservatives in Texas, who are still reeling from the 84th Legislature’s total failure to advance this aspect of their agenda. Their dismay is not surprising: considering that both chambers and all major statewide offices are controlled by Republicans, who won the 2014 elections in a landslide, this was a pretty unproductive session from a socially conservative perspective. But looking back at the session, I don’t think socially conservative activists should be surprised. They’re the ones to blame, at least in part. And if they don’t realize that–which many of them clearly don’t–they’re bound to be disappointed again.
In my assessment, social conservatives were stymied by circumstances this session, specifically guns; the seemingly endless open carry debate absorbed the time and muscle that otherwise might have been allocated to tackling right-wing priorities such as abortion, gay people, or the Texas DREAM Act. They were also thwarted by their usual bogeyman, Joe Straus, and the commitment to tackling real issues like roads and education that he and his affiliates represent. The latter factor is no doubt the one that conservatives will focus on during the next round of primaries; some of the RINOs have already drawn official challenges. The right wing may win a few seats, as they have in previous rounds.
But that approach helps explain how little social conservatives accomplished. The purges marginalize them in two predictable ways.
The first way is straightforward: the characteristics correlated with success in a Republican primary are not the characteristics correlated with success in the Lege. They’re not mutually exclusive, necessarily, but when a primary challenge is inspired by a minor ideological distinction, the pool of available candidates is obviously narrowed, and the vetting process is selectively skewed.
The second way is something that crystallized for me while working on the forthcoming Best and Worst Legislators list: the good social conservatives in the Texas Lege are in a pretty thankless position these days. After twenty years of Republican hegemony, progress has been made on most longstanding legislative goals, at least the ones that fall under the Lege’s purview. The ones that remain are increasingly small and contentious. And yet, as a result of the purge mentality, no difference is too small to merit a primary challenge; that was clear after J.D. Sheffield made a well-informed and heartfelt effort to defend the fetal abnormality exemption in the state’s 20-week abortion ban from Matt Schaefer’s effort to repeal it. The exemption, as Sheffield explained, applies only when a fetal abnormality precludes the baby’s survival; nonetheless, for certain conservatives, he exposed himself as a late-term abortion enthusiast by explaining its inclusion in the ban, which passed in 2013.
As long as this mentality persists, it’s risky for a Republican to weigh in on socially conservative legislation, much less author it, and the prospect of doing so is surely unappealing. The legislators most likely to champion such causes, as a result, are the genuinely extreme ones, and none of those legislators are even remotely effective. Making matters worse is that blowhards of any stripe inevitably cast a shadow over their more serious-minded colleagues, in this case marginalizing legislators who are opposed to gay marriage, for example, but not in the toxic, homophobic way that someone like Steve Hotze wants them to be.
That works out fine for me, since I just want the Lege to focus on the budget. But socially conservative Texans would probably disagree. And if they’re disappointed by the results of this session, they should consider their own role in the outcome, or they’re bound to be disappointed again.