Grand Old Problem

What Greg Abbott and the Republican party should have learned from their state convention.
Illustration by Thomas Fulchs

In early June, about ten thousand conservatives gathered in Fort Worth for the Republican Party of Texas’s biennial convention. Officially, the purpose of the gathering was party business, such as recognizing the candidates for this year’s general elections and updating the party’s platform. Informally, the convention offered anyone who was curious a chance to check in with the base—to ask a statewide cross-section of the party’s leaders, and its most ardent supporters, to elaborate on their current preoccupations and their preferences for the future direction of Texas. Even a casual observer could see that the delegates weren’t perfectly representative of the state; as a group, they were far older, whiter, and more likely to wear patriotic button-downs than any random sample of Texans could possibly be. Still, as devoted supporters of the Republican party in the most important red state in the country, they could reasonably be considered ambassadors for their causes, for their party, and for Texas. 

A similar exercise had been staged earlier this year, with the Republican primaries and runoffs, but the results had been ambiguous. Tea party types crowed over their victories in several high-profile and hotly contested races, and rightly so. It is clear that the Senate, at least, will have a more conservative cast when the Legislature convenes, in January 2015. And it will likely be led by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, the state senator who won the nomination after a scorched-earth campaign about conservative credentials that would have been more plausible if the incumbent in question had been Nancy Pelosi rather than David Dewhurst. The next attorney general is likely to be state senator Ken Paxton, whose strongest selling point is his pseudo-endorsement from Ted Cruz. 

At the same time, a number of establishment Republicans prevailed over primary challengers. John Cornyn, who had inexplicably been labeled a liberal, is set to return to the U.S. Senate. Joe Straus, a perennial target of certain conservative activists, easily swatted away his opponent and will have no problem being reelected as speaker of the Texas House. The infighting wouldn’t have been so ominous for Republicans if it had reflected a lively contest of ideas. By the end of the convention, though, it was clear that too many ideas is the least of the party’s problems. 

“Texas proudly ranks number one in the nation for job creation,” said Attorney General Greg Abbott as he accepted the party’s gubernatorial nomination. “We’re number one for energy. We’re number one for exports, for farms.” All of that is true, and it helps explain why Republicans are in such a strong position. “The time has come for Texas to set its sights on another number one,” Abbott continued. “Texas should be number one in the nation for educating our children.” 

It was a worthy thing to say. With more than five million children enrolled in public schools, the strength of our public education system should be a top priority for all Texans. Under the circumstances, though, the statement was so benign that it almost seemed defiant. As attorney general, Abbott has effectively been a professional antagonist for more than a decade. “I go into the office, I sue the federal government, and I go home” is how he often summarizes his job. By saying that he wants Texas to have good schools, Abbott was indicating that he thinks government is good for something other than target practice. He was implying that as governor, he would support policies that benefit the state as a whole, rather than simply catering to the whims of the donors, lobbyists, and activists who play such an outsized role in Republican primaries—some of whom apparently want to abolish public schools outright.

It feels strange to give Abbott credit for expressing an interest in public education. It feels like the soft bigotry of rock-bottom expectations. But it’s all relative, isn’t it? Compared with other Republicans at the convention, the attorney general was a profile in courage, an intellectual heavyweight and a beacon of statesmanship. That was clear the next day, when delegates met to approve the party platform. It’s worth pointing out that party platforms are not legally binding documents. Their provisions carry no prescriptive authority outside the party that produced them, and given the long-standing antiestablishment ethos among Texas Republicans, it’s possible that their official platform is even less relevant than most. Along those lines, many of the silliest things in this year’s platform, such as the provision about gutting the census—an effort to curtail the data-collecting impulses of “government peepcrats,” as Congressman Ted Poe once described them—are holdovers from the 2012 platform. 

It all seemed harmless enough until a different priority emerged, one that came to define the talk about the convention. “We recognize the legitimacy and efficacy of counseling,” the delegates professed, “which offers reparative therapy and treatment for those patients seeking healing and wholeness from their homosexual lifestyle. No laws or executive orders shall be imposed to limit or restrict access to this type of therapy.” 

It was an exercise in smarmy yet uninformed irrelevance. Homosexuality is no longer considered a mental illness or a form of moral deviancy. Gay sex has been fully legal for more than a decade, and recent polls suggest that about two thirds of Texans support some form of legal recognition for same-sex couples. Many psychologists argue that reparative therapy may be harmful to patients who undergo it because it reinforces the self-defeating belief that homosexuality should be cured. In addition to all of that, reparative therapy doesn’t work. Homosexuality can’t be cured, because there is nothing to cure. 

The resolution made headlines around the country. Americans from coast to coast scoffed and snickered at Texas. Even here, a number of conventioneers broke ranks to register their qualms: gay Republicans and young Republicans, of course, but also Steve Munisteri, the chairman of the party, who effectively blamed the debacle on a rogue committee. “The way the platform works, once somebody calls the question on the platform, it’s a

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