In the thirty years between 1984, when Greg Abbott graduated from law school, and 2014, when he became governor of Texas, he held three jobs: attorney, judge, and attorney general. He speaks with a lawyer’s tongue and thinks with a lawyer’s mind. His 2016 book, Broken but Unbowed, demonstrates just how important the law is to his personal and political identity. The book is framed, at the start, around the tragic 1984 accident that left Abbott partially paralyzed. But he then briskly moves on to the real subject: his legal career and his theories about the U.S. Constitution.
By the time he became governor, he had little experience in the kind of transactional and relational politics inherent to his office. So in 2015, at the start of his first legislative session as the state’s chief executive, it was unclear what kind he would be. When the Legislature is in session, lawmakers meet with the governor to discuss legislation. What were his priorities? What bills would he veto, and what would he welcome? What did he need help with, and what could he offer in return?
Lawmakers quickly discovered something remarkable. It was possible to stare the man in the eyes, to speak with him for a half-hour or more, and walk away with no better idea of where he stood on important legislative matters. He seemed unwilling to speak forthrightly about nearly anything, drawing a veil around his positions, lest he alienate some key legislator or interest group.
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When Abbott did make himself clear, it was to issue marching orders to those who had no reason to follow them, or to punish those who had defied him. “There was no comparison to Perry. [Abbott’s] concept of governing is ordering people around,” Republican state representative Sarah Davis told me in 2018. “He came into the regular session and kind of chided us, and then was absent for the rest of the session.”
And his public statements often contradicted his private ones. Publicly, Abbott endorsed the infamous anti-transgender “bathroom bill” in the 2017 session and pretended to advocate for its passage. But in private he reassured business groups—who worried the state would be boycotted by lucrative conventions and sports tournaments—that the bill would never pass. He was publicly accused of that duplicity by Republican state representative Byron Cook in 2018. The governor’s office has never addressed it.
In time, all kinds of Lege operators came to share the view that Abbott was at once a cipher and a bully, a view reinforced by his repeated attempts to force from office Republicans who offered even the most mild criticism of him, from the moderate Representative Lyle Larson of San Antonio to the right-wing Representative Mike Lang of Granbury.
But if politicians came to think of Abbott as thin-skinned and vindictive, his public face remained Sphinx-like. His ability to avoid taking positions on any issue on which he might be drawn out or rendered vulnerable was as popular among the public as it was irritating to insiders. For Texans whose primary awareness of the governor came through often-softball interviews with local news anchors, Abbott’s ability to remain broadly agreeable was, well, agreeable. He racked up very little in the way of achievements—his pre-K plan fell apart with seemingly little care, and the brunt of his ire seemed to be reserved for small-ball items like municipal plastic bag bans—but he has maintained consistently high approval ratings.
But that was in the good times. What would happen if a sustained crisis forced Abbott to take sides?
Fast forward a few years, through 130,000 American deaths from the coronavirus, at least 3,500 of them from Texas so far, and the onset of the worst economic circumstances since the Great Depression. Now Abbott’s governing style is under strain. Arguably, the root cause of the current crisis is his tendency to talk a lot without saying much and his propensity to take the path of least resistance regardless of the circumstances, especially when confronted by the inchoate demands of the Republican party’s right wing. This modus operandi is on display every time Abbott gets in front of a television camera. But as we see more and more of it, the artifice is becoming more clear. Abbott’s disapproval numbers have been rising just a bit, even as other governors have seen a surge of popularity during the crisis.
Here, we could talk about Abbott’s quadruple-backflip on mask mandates; the time he issued a statewide lockdown disguised under a bureaucratic name while insisting it wasn’t one, before clarifying that it was the next day; the Shelley Luther saga, which saw him ordain that violators of his shutdown order should be punished with fines and jail time only to blame local officials for enforcing it, before retroactively nullifying what he had expressly commanded; or the way he opened the state for business before fixing the problems the lockdown was designed to address.
But instead, let’s consider a small but important test Abbott recently faced, one that seems instructive. Abbott’s party had long been planning to hold its state convention in Houston, one of the nation’s biggest coronavirus hot spots, which would have brought some six thousand attendees, many of them older and especially vulnerable to the virus, from all around the state for a crowded three-day fete. An in-person convention was a virtual guarantee that some delegates and service workers would get infected and possibly die, and that Houston’s seemingly potent strain of the virus would be spread around the state.
It was an incredibly bad idea that Abbott’s party nonetheless seemed hell-bent on pursuing. What did the governor have to say about it? Would he speak up, in an attempt to save the lives of his own party’s activists? “You’re the top Republican in the state, governor,” said an anchor for KDFW in Dallas on July 6, after Houston mayor Sylvester Turner begged the party to call off the gathering, then canceled it two days later. “What do you think should happen?”
The governor’s answer: “I know that the executive committee for the Republican Party of Texas have been talking about this. I think they continue to talk about it, and they weigh all of the consequences and the public health and measures … They’ll make a decision.”
The anchor persisted: “You don’t want to weigh in on what you think should happen?”
The governor paused and then gave his answer: “Obviously I think whatever happens—whether it be, listen, this convention or any action that anybody takes—we’re at a time with the outbreak of the coronavirus where public safety needs to be a paramount concern, and make sure that whoever does anything and whatever they do, they need to do to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.”
A day later, an anchor for KENS in San Antonio tried a different tack: “Will you be attending in person?” Abbott dissembled, so the anchor tried again. “Yeah, listen, as for myself, as well as for everybody else,” Abbott said, “we will continue to see what the standards are that will be issued by the State Republican Executive Committee, by the state Republican Party to determine what the possibility will be for being able to attend.” To determine what the possibility will be for being able to attend.
Not only could Abbott not say whether he thought the convention was a good idea, he couldn’t even say whether he would be there. The interview went out during the KENS five o’clock broadcast. Not half an hour later, during a meeting of the SREC, the party’s executive director announced that elected officials would be pre-recording messages instead of giving in-person speeches. Abbott surely knew this important fact when he was on the air.
It makes sense in many cases for a lawyer or a politician to maintain maximum ambiguity. The question of whether to go through with the convention was a divisive one in the party, particularly among skeptics of Abbott. But, again, it was an event that was likely going to sicken and maybe even kill loyal Republicans. What does it say that Abbott was unwilling to speak up—that he let Turner take care of the problem for him? Does it make you feel that the governor has your interests at heart? Does it seem like he’s willing to do what’s necessary in the face of criticism?
Early in the pandemic, on March 11, Washington governor Jay Inslee held a press conference to announce a ban on large gatherings. A reporter asked him if violators would face penalties. Inslee’s response: “The penalties are you might be killing your granddad if you don’t do it.”
That played in news broadcasts across the country. It summed up the nut of the problem before most Americans had started to wrap their heads around it. You might be fine, if you’re healthy and young, but there are those in your life who will probably not be fine if you contract the virus and spread it to them. It was also pithy, blunt, and a little confrontational. In other words, it was a Texan thing to say. You could see Rick Perry or Ann Richards or George W. on a good day saying something like it. Texans profess to prefer outspoken and decisive politicians—mavericks, you might say—over those who try to muddle through, even when we don’t agree with them.
Yet what we see in the news every day in Texas is the product of muddling through—a lawyer’s compromise. That’s why San Antonio and Houston are stocking up on mobile morgues while Abbott forbids local leaders from calling a lockdown. It remains Abbott’s position that Texas can both “open up” and contain the virus. You don’t have to be an epidemiologist to know that this does not make an iota of sense. We have real-world examples now: In countries that acted aggressively to contain the virus, such as South Korea and the Czech Republic, normal life is resuming. Containment must come before normalcy. When you try to have it both ways, you end up having neither.
The best we can hope for right now is that the virus’s rapid spread through the state stabilizes. Even if that happens, the calamitous recent surge of infections that has sickened hundreds of thousands of Texans and is currently killing one hundred Texans a day can be blamed in great part on decisions made by the governor—his unwillingness to allow mask mandates until very late in the game, his speedy opening of bars and other indoor businesses, his consistently muddled messaging.
We decided not to make the tough decisions required to contain the virus, both as a country and a state. As such, normal life will not be resuming here for a long time. On June 22, Abbott told a press conference that under his leadership Texas would find a way to “coexist with COVID-19,” as if the virus had sent us a cease and desist letter. If only the world were a courtroom.