Last week at the Capitol, a battle between the Texas House and the Senate over competing plans to cut Texans’ property taxes grew more contentious. Specifically, the men who run each legislative chamber went from giving each other the silent treatment—the tactic they appear to have favored throughout the majority of the session—to bickering in public, taking potshots at each other and their preferred bills on TV and social media. 

It came to a head on Tuesday, when Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who controls the Senate, unveiled a new nickname for House Speaker and Beaumont native Dade Phelan: “California Dade.” The lieutenant governor prefers a plan that would raise the homestead exemption—the amount of a property’s value not subject to school property tax—from $40,000 to $70,000. He stammered out the nickname a few times to a Spectrum News anchor while arguing against Phelan’s plan, which would instead cap annual appraisal hikes at 5 percent. “California Dade wants a California tax plan, or a New Jersey tax plan,” Patrick said, waving fistfuls of dollar bills like a prop comic in Branson to emphasize his point. 

Phelan defended his plan, describing the comparison between his plan and California’s as comparing “apples and bowling balls.” As political comebacks go, it’s the equivalent of bringing a bowling ball to a knife fight. 

But while the respective merits of each property tax plan are a valid subject of debate, the nature of the Texas Legislature means that all of this bickering carries actual policy implications. The chances that Texans will be on the hook for a special session, where who-knows-what could end up on the agenda, go way up the more time these two men spend squabbling on an issue both have identified as a priority. So let’s answer the critical question in Patrick’s attempt to grind Phelan beneath his bootheel: Is “California Dade” a Trump-like masterstroke of a nickname that leaves the House Speaker diminished in the eyes of his supporters and helpless to resist Patrick’s push, or is it just more nonsense from a lieutenant governor who, while powerful, may be reaching for rhetoric that isn’t in his own bag of tricks? To discuss, senior editors Forrest Wilder and Dan Solomon set up a back-and-forth of their own. 

Forrest Wilder: “California Dade” is an objectively terrible nickname. I get what Dan Patrick is trying to do here. He wants to communicate that Dade Phelan’s way of cutting property taxes—capping the rise in property appraisal values—is bad policy, similar to what California enacted in the seventies, and ironically almost exactly what a certain Dan Patrick proposed back when he was first in the Texas Senate in 2007. Critics of the plan, such as the Texas Association of Realtors, indeed argue a lower appraisal cap would distort the housing market, as it has done in the Golden State. 

On the merits, Patrick is probably right. But as an insult, this is so lame. First, few normies are on a first-name basis with the Speaker of the Texas House, who is elected to that chair by the 150 members of the lower chamber, not voters. Dade who? Second, great political insults usually don’t involve relatively obscure policy disputes. Donald Trump was not insulting Jeb Bush’s education-reform proposals when he tagged him “Low-Energy Jeb.” Maybe if Phelan were spending his weekends surfing in La Jolla instead of doing real estate stuff in Beaumont, where there is a Phelan Boulevard, the name would have more resonance. And, finally, if you’re going to append “California” to the man’s name, why not use his last name, which is pronounced “fee-luhn”?  “California Phelan” rolls off the tongue, at least. Your tax plan? California Dade, I ain’t Phelan it. 

Dan Solomon: I get what you’re saying here, but let’s take a second to understand what purpose political nicknames have come to serve since 2015, when Trump used them to completely obliterate every opponent who faced him in the GOP primary. Let us remember “Liddle Marco” Rubio, “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz, and “Truly Weird Senator” Rand Paul, all of whom turned to dust the moment these nicknames stuck. Is there a political point to be found in any of Trump’s epithets? There is not; rather, the point is to say, “This guy is the embodiment of attributes that you don’t like.” Somehow, that’s become an important part of the American political process, utilized by members of both parties. (Whither Crudité Oz?) 

“California Dade” doesn’t communicate anything specific about Phelan’s tax plan, which is good, because—as you correctly note—nobody cares about the policy dispute except a handful of policy wonks. But it does attempt to accomplish what a good political nickname does, which is paint Phelan as out of touch and with some sort of suspicious ties to California. Bashing California is up there with brisket and cheating at baseball on the list of Texan pastimes, so it feels a savvy insult to slap on a rival. Whether it sticks or not, I don’t know, but “California Dade” is straight out of the (wildly successful) Trumpy tradition of trying to saddle your foe with a nickname heavy enough with baggage that it’ll drag him down to the ocean floor. Property taxes, schmoperty taxes. 

FW: I completely agree that the Trump insults are highly effective because they call attention to some unlikable attribute in a political opponent. But that’s precisely the problem with “California Dade.” Phelan is a southeast Texas guy who in no way reads as Californian. There are many places much farther from California, figuratively and literally, than Beaumont. 

As you hint at, Trump’s best nicknames are all about domination and humiliation. “Liddle Marco” is funny because Marco Rubio projected a certain nervous little-man energy during his 2016 presidential campaign. And it’s fun to say—“Liddle Marco,” heh heh. Ditto for “Lyin’ Ted” and “Low-Energy Jeb.” Though “Ron DeSanctimonious” (Ron DeSantis) is not Trump’s best work, it is still in the vein of calling attention to a yuck quality in the Florida governor—his smugness. 

Dan Patrick should know all this instinctively. He came up in right-wing talk radio and has intimate experience with trying on new names. After he moved to Houston in the seventies, he changed his Baltimore-born name from Dannie Goeb to Dan Patrick, and he eventually became a radio personality known for stunts such as painting himself in Houston Oilers blue and getting a vasectomy while on air. In other words, he has been Trumpy for a very long time. All I’m saying is that Lieutenant Dan, the lite guv, the little guv, Dannie Goeb, Maryland Dan might, could do better in the insult department. 

DS: You bring up a great point about the entire practice of slapping your political foes with insulting nicknames: they have to be credible. Trump workshopped “Corrupt Joe” against Joe Biden in the 2020 campaign, but it didn’t stick—there just don’t appear to be that many people who believe that Biden is nakedly on the take. “Sleepy Joe,” on the other hand, was less of a stretch for one of the oldest people to ever run for president. “Ron DeSanctimonious” always felt like a work in progress, something that perhaps felt true but was a little highfalutin, while “Pudding Fingers,” which is completely devoid of substance, somehow feels right. Even those who abhor Trump and hate everything he stands for hear that one and are like, “Well, you gotta hand it to him . . .” 

Which brings us to “California Dade.” Will it stick at the Capitol, among the two leaders’ fellow politicians—folks who know Phelan, who are aware of the speaker’s generations-long roots in Beaumont, who’ve heard his accent when he talks? No, definitely not. It’s not credible among anyone who knows anything about the Speaker of the Texas House. But that’s a pretty small group of nerds, wonks, and electeds, all things considered! The real question: Will it convince their voters that Phelan is something alien, foreign, and exotic, the legislative equivalent of putting sushi on pizza—that something Californian lurks behind those hipster glasses? To that, I believe the answer is a resounding “Possibly!” 

I’ve learned better than to try to predict Texas GOP voters. I do know, however, that if you’re looking for a word to use to convince that group that somebody isn’t one of them, “California” is a pretty good pull. There are other political opponents of the lieutenant governor to whom it could be more plausibly applied, sure—but the overwhelming majority of Texans could not identify Dade Phelan in a lineup of a half dozen suburban dentists who moved to Grapevine from San Diego six months ago, and I think it could stick just fine. 

The verdict: As nicknames go, I agree with Dan that this is a good one. Everyone knows Californians are self-absorbed narcissists, the sort who compulsively overshare about their lives and force their lefty political commitments, such as support for birth control, on every unsuspecting audience. But, as with Forrest, I do question the occasion for the nickname’s use. Dan Patrick is not running against Dade Phelan; the hearts and minds he must convince are not those of wavering voters being begged by a rival to clap, but rather the self-respecting members of the Texas House. They want a debate of ideas, not one of childish name-calling, surely, right? Let’s call it a toothless victory for the lieutenant governor—aren’t you getting tired of all the winning? —Ben Rowen