FROM THE PILLOW FORT IN MY APARTMENT, APRIL 13—To paraphrase one of America’s greatest-ever military leaders, you face a pandemic with the state government you have, not the state government you might want. The guys in there now—our indicted attorney general, our suicidal lieutenant governor, Sid Miller—those are the guys that we got. God bless ’em.
They say that crises bring out the best and the worst in people, and that’s true, but also, some people are the same as they were before, only more so. In virus veritas. As our lives and livelihoods rest in their hands, it’s never been a better time for another episode of Better Know Your Statewide Elected Officials.
Governor Greg Abbott
Abbott has attracted some criticism for his handling of the coronavirus, particularly for being slow to implement statewide lockdown orders and for failing to ramp up testing for COVID-19. (Texas is still dead last in per-capita testing, by the way.) Let me say at the outset, to the surprise of whatever intern is tasked with reading this in the governor’s office, that I have a good deal of sympathy for the position Abbott is in. It’s a test that not many people around the world have aced.
There’s been a lot of fighting about the comparative performances of different political systems in this crisis. East versus West, democracies versus authoritarian states, Europe versus America, etc. But from the Chinese Central Committee to the city of Lake Worth Beach, Florida, there’s a core political dynamic that keeps getting repeated over and over. The measures most effective at mitigating COVID-19 must be put in place well before the virus rampages. And because those measures are so massively disruptive, political leaders of all stripes are reluctant to implement them until the virus is a clear and present danger, at which point it’s too late to strangle the thing in its crib.
So if you’re an elected official, you can choose to be behind the curve, like the mayor of Amity Island in Jaws who keeps the beach open. You can gamble. Perhaps things never get bad and you look smart, and you’ve protected a lot of people’s jobs. Or you can be ahead of the curve, and risk becoming a hated figure as businesses fail and people are put out of work. Various countries have whiffed in all sorts of ways. China got way ahead of the curve, but only after a lot of scared local officials (and perhaps some higher ones) covered it up. Japan and Sweden, two nations with famously functional governments, are far behind the curve. U.S. states are all over the map.
In order to do what public health officials say needs to be done, you need a leader who is willing to be hated for a while, someone willing to be the bad guy who shuts down shops and restaurants, even as people get angry. Eventually, they might come to see the wisdom of your bold actions. Ideally this unpleasant task falls to the president, but that’s not the role Donald Trump has chosen to play. In Texas, Abbott could easily be the hated guy. He’s not facing voters for a while, or perhaps ever again. He could’ve ordered a statewide shutdown early on and taken the heat for it. If he had done so, we might not be seeing so many devastated nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
Instead the governor has tried to straddle the fence, as he almost always does. He told mayors and county judges they were welcome to lock down their own cities and counties and choose to take the heat if they wanted. In doing so, Abbott put the burden of shuttering local economies on the figures most exposed to pressure from business leaders. He said he was letting them make the call because the virus was spread unequally around the state. But we have no idea where the virus is and isn’t, because our testing regimen is laughably inadequate. We know that apparently healthy people can spread COVID-19, and also that the virus can take a week or two to produce symptoms, which means that communities that seem to be healthy may emphatically not be.
Abbott eventually came out with his own sorta, kinda stay-at-home order. Except he didn’t call it that, confusing nearly everyone. (Eventually, he quietly conceded that it was, in fact, a stay-at-home order.) He also left a gaping exemption for gatherings at houses of worship, which helped politically insulate him from angry evangelicals but almost certainly put many people at risk who attended in-person Easter services.
But maybe Abbott’s strangest action was the fight he picked with Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. Dallas is one of the hardest-hit parts of Texas, and interested parties developed a plan to use the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center downtown as an overflow hospital. Abbott was told by somebody—it’s still a bit unclear how it happened—that Jenkins had changed his mind and intended not to use the convention center after all. Instead of picking up the phone and asking Jenkins about the matter, the governor sent Jenkins a public, sternly worded letter informing him that Dallas would lose out on resources if the plan wasn’t put into action. The letter had a bizarrely hostile tone, and it precipitated four days of stories about the “fight” between Jenkins and the governor. (Jenkins said the governor had been misinformed, that the convention center would indeed be used as a hospital, and that Abbott should have called him first.)
Abbott has penned a lot of threatening letters over the years. When he sends them in peacetime to, say, Austin mayor Steve Adler or Dallas County district attorney John Creuzot it’s good politics. But this isn’t politics, or at least not politics as usual. People are dying and everyone is working, presumably, in good faith to try to do the right thing. A different kind of governor might have spent the past few years developing a personal relationship with Jenkins, party be damned, so that when something like this comes up he or she could call up and say, How’s the kid, Clay? and While I’m at it, I heard this thing I wanted to check with you about. Got a minute?
Instead Abbott, whose adult jobs before governor have been lawyer, judge, and attorney general, wrote what was basically a legal cease-and-desist letter. That’s the most Abbott thing of all. For fifteen years Texas had Rick Perry, who governed by handshake and grin and, when the cameras weren’t looking, an outstretched palm. His successor governs by public demands. Different strokes.
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick
We’ve written elsewhere about Patrick’s earnest-seeming pledge, on Fox News, that he would die from the ’rona if it meant his grandkids could inherit the America that he knows and loves. He also volunteered his belief that a lot of older people would be willing to risk their lives in much the same way. Let us say that the pledge was not well received.
After that affair, Patrick sent an email to his supporters regarding the segment. “The response I received in the left-wing media, amplified by their acolytes on Twitter, was ugly and filled with lies,” he said. He then echoed the contention of noted Florida cretin Marco Rubio that the media was cheering for a higher death toll to embarrass the president. “The left and the media are very uncomfortable with the way the country is pulling together to fight the virus.” Patrick had offered Americans hope and unity, and they had batted it away, and he was frankly disappointed.
On Friday, it emerged that Patrick had told Texas Republicans he hoped to see the lifting of stay-at-home orders and the return to regular business starting on May 1. We may yet get to see how many Texans are in a sacrificing mood.
House Speaker Dennis Bonnen
The crisis hit at a strange time for Dennis the Menace, who was kneecapped by a bizarre scandal last year in which he was surreptitiously taped making extremely unwise remarks to far-right activist Michael Quinn Sullivan. Bonnen asked Sullivan to target Bonnen’s own enemies in the House Republican Caucus in their upcoming primaries, and in exchange Bonnen said he would allow Sullivan’s political organization on the floor of the House next session. Because Bonnen lied about the events before and after Sullivan made the affair public, his credibility was torpedoed and he announced he wouldn’t be running for office again this year.
The End, right? Well, not quite. Bonnen has been on something of a rehabilitation tour lately, and that has potential consequences in this crisis. Before the coronavirus, he went on a conservative Lubbock radio program to be interviewed about #Bonnghazi for the first time since last year. His message: I’m very sorry, and also I did absolutely nothing wrong. He also wrote an obfuscatory op-ed in his hometown newspaper—ironically, a newspaper that once employed Sullivan as a reporter—saying much the same thing. More significantly, Bonnen is still in possession of a substantial amount of campaign cash that could aid Republicans this fall. And throughout the crisis, he’s issued a series of folksy and reassuring statements.
Though it’s too late for him to change his mind and run again this year, there are rumblings around Austin about what he wants to do next—politics being the primary pursuit of his adult life. (Apart from the bank he put together with some help from lobbyists and other politicians.) There was some talk early on about whether Bonnen could step aside early and allow a new House speaker to take the reins, but that never happened. Bonnen’s still in the game.
The way things are going, it’s possible to imagine a scenario in which a special session needs to be called before January in order to address the several simultaneous disasters the state is going through. And Bonnen’s insistence on sticking around makes that more complicated. Would he try to keep the gavel? Would he be quickly replaced, and if so, by whom?
Bonnen’s ego is a complicated variable in a moment that doesn’t need any more complications. Maybe he could be induced to leave early and take a sabbatical at Rick Perry’s Round Top Home for Recovering Statehouse Rascals.
Attorney General Ken Paxton
As soon as Governor Greg Abbott ordered a temporary halt to abortions under the reasoning that they are “elective surgeries” and a distraction from the virus, it became Paxton’s show. The attorney general zealously went to work in the courts to ensure the abortion ban was held up—while tirelessly making sure allied media and activists saw him doing so. Abbott’s order has already been examined by a federal district court, which ruled against Paxton, the Fifth Circuit Court, which ruled for him, and back to the district court. The U.S. Supreme Court has been asked to weigh in. If Paxton’s grandkids ask him where he was during the Great Pandemic, he’ll be able to answer with clarity: fightin’ Roe.
If you oppose abortion the need for this is obvious, and if you’re in favor of abortion rights the ridiculousness of the ban at this particular time is obvious. Let’s point out one thing instead. The anti-abortion position is that the value of life is absolute, and that life can’t be conditioned on the needs or preferences of others.
Fair enough. The problem is that Paxton’s colleagues, particularly Patrick, and other friends on the right are making the opposite argument with regard to the coronavirus. When Texas’s top political leaders argue that businesses should be reopened quickly, even if some people die, they’re implicitly accepting that the value of life is conditional, not absolute, and that saving every life shouldn’t come at the expense of placing undue burdens and restrictions on others.
Someone has taken a wrong turn. Boy, when they realize it, they’ll really have egg on their face!
Land Commissioner George P. Bush
Like many of us, Bush is attempting to replace the warm glow of physical social interaction with the cold blue-light glow of posting online. The trouble: on February 25, Bush announced that he was giving up social media for Lent.
On March 30, a video appeared on Bush’s Twitter feed. Wearing a grey Under Armour top, a baseball cap, and a thin five o’clock shadow, Bush told viewers to follow CDC guidelines and to “take care of yourself,” “perhaps by challenging yourself with a new book.” He had forwarded the video to his staff for them to post, he explained, which seems like a bit of a cheat, like the shabbos goys who do work for Jews on the sabbath.
On April 2, Bush gave some reading recommendations. Another video came on April 3, from Bush’s garage. “Everyone, Commissioner Bush, just reminding everybody to once in a while get some fitness on. Many of us are back in our garage gyms and you know it brings back old memories of being in high school and training for baseball,” he said. “Wanna see Texas working out during this time.”
In a follow-up on April 6, he posted a video from what appears to be a home office. “Just wrapped up a homeschooling video lesson with both of my boys,” he said. He asked people to share their thoughts on their own experiences homeschooling children. “I think it would be great to start a conversation on how best we can educate them during these historic times.”
In traditional Twitter form, Bush’s tweet received one sincere reply from a fellow parent, one abusive tweet from the right, and one abusive tweet from the left, from a user with a Family Guy avatar who called the commissioner “kinda douchie.”
Hang in there, bud.
Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller
People like to make fun of Sid Miller, and it’s not hard: he seems to spend most of his time in office sharing memes on social media, mostly harmless off-color jokes but occasionally really foul stuff. He’s still posting. But strangely enough, Miller made what seems to be a fairly salutary contribution to the crisis: he wrote a letter asking the governor to waive the requirement that toilet paper sold in stores be labeled in English, which would allow distributors to import Mexican TP.
“We don’t have to have toilet paper labeled in English,” Miller told a local TV news station. “We know how to use it.” That’s a pretty good point, actually. “Just some common sense cowboy logic.” The report was accompanied on TV with the title “THERE MAY BE HOPE FOR MORE TP IN TEXAS,” one of many moments in recent weeks during which I’ve felt like I was losing my mind.
No follow-ups were immediately available on whether Abbott indeed issued the order, but on Thursday the Texas Tribune’s Laredo bureau reported that súper gigante manzanilla-scented Mexican rolls had started to show up at H-E-B.
This raises a number of fascinating questions. Is this bathroom colonialism? And is the higher price Americans are willing to pay for TP depriving Mexicans of their own? Or is this a gesture of goodwill—does AMLO feel he has squares to spare? When you’re in need, it can’t hurt to ask your neighbor to pass a roll under the wall.