Grand Old Problem

What Greg Abbott and the Republican party should have learned from their state convention.

August 2014By Comments

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 parliamentary maneuver,” he said in an interview with Texas Public Radio.  

The delegates who attend party conventions represent a small subset of the Republican Party of Texas, and even if a majority of delegates supported the resolution, it wouldn’t be fair to conclude that a majority of Texas Republicans do. At the same time, the fiasco was hardly an isolated incident. Over the past year or two, Republicans have repeatedly declined to do serious work on major public policy issues and focused instead on chest-thumping and saber-rattling. 

Illegal immigration, for example, is an important issue in Texas, and for the past twenty years, Republicans such as George W. Bush and Rick Perry have dealt with it pragmatically. Those days are apparently over. Patrick, in his primary campaign for lieutenant governor, repeatedly sounded the alarm over what he called an “illegal invasion,” and delegates to this year’s convention replaced the platform’s more or less temperate plank on immigration with hard-line rhetoric. Given the current crisis on the border, the thoughtful approach has fallen out of favor at a moment when thoughtfulness is badly needed.

Women’s health is another issue that may be worth the attention of statewide leaders. Although Texas has relatively low cancer rates in general, the state has one of the worst rates of cervical cancer in the country. This statistical quirk is probably related to the fact that many Texans lack health insurance, meaning that many Texas women have erratic access to the preventive health care screenings that help catch such cancers early. Last summer, when Republicans decided to tackle abortion during the special session, they explained that stricter standards for clinics such as Planned Parenthood would protect women’s health in addition to protecting unborn children. At no point during the heated debates that followed did either side present evidence that the new legislation would actually reduce the abortion rate in Texas. A number of clinics, however, have closed.

Even on fiscal issues, historically their area of strength, all too many Republicans have been acting like bozos. Toward the end of the last regular session, a handful of legislators took up arms against what they described as the unchecked growth of state spending. The Lege, they argued, was calling for a 26 percent increase in state spending compared with the previous biennium. It was a shocking metric. It was also flatly incorrect. The general budget at hand, which ultimately passed, represented about a 9 percent increase in state spending over the previous one—a significant figure but not out of line with the state’s population growth and inflation, as mandated by the Texas constitution, and not unreasonable, given the severe budget cuts of the previous session.

The 26 percent figure, which originated at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a free-market think tank that really should have known better, was a measure of the growth in all the appropriations that were made during the course of the 2013 session—including, for example, the $7 billion that legislators appropriated at the beginning of the session to backfill the previous budget. Those appropriations were more of a course correction than a spending spree. Under the state constitution’s pay-as-you-go provision, the Lege can’t write a budget that spends more money than the comptroller projects that the state will have available. That’s an important piece of context that a number of Republicans either totally failed to understand or pretended to fail to understand. 

Several of those officials are now running for higher office, and they have gone on to proudly proclaim their ignorance on the campaign trail. Those political ambitions help explain the party’s devolution into rah-rah right-wingery. Texas has not elected a Democrat to major statewide office in twenty years. The Republican men and women who have led during that time have governed as reasonable adults, more or less, and—more importantly—Texas has thrived under their watch. The success of the state has enabled millions of Texans to maintain their historic disinterest in politics. Despite the unusual number of contested Republican primaries this year, only about 10 percent of the state’s registered voters weighed in. With primaries being decided by the most animated subset of Republican voters, candidates are campaigning accordingly. They have no reason to do otherwise until Democrats start to compete more effectively in the general election. 

No pressing reason, in other words. Democrats seem lively at the moment, excited to have a high-profile gubernatorial candidate, but Wendy Davis earned fewer votes in her gubernatorial primary this year than Bill White did as the party’s nominee in 2010. Polls consistently show her trailing Abbott by a double-digit margin. Republicans are almost certain to win every major contest in November. But there will be another round of elections in 2016, and again in 2018, and so on. The question of whether Texas Democrats will ever have what it takes to win statewide is an open one. No one’s lost money lately betting against their surprising torpor and talent for self-sabotage. Recently, though, a different question seems equally worthwhile. Can Texas Republicans lose? They are certainly giving it a good try.

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