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Hooks on Politics

Democratic nominee for comptroller at a campaign event with Tejano legend Little Joe, October 24, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Democratic nominee for comptroller at a campaign event with Tejano legend Little Joe, October 24, 2014.

The comptroller’s debate last night was a pretty rare thing in the crazy tilt-a-whirl of this election cycle—it was substantive, contained serious but civil disagreements between two generally well-informed and earnest candidates, and illuminated real policy distinctions that are both important and little-discussed in the state’s public sphere. Compared to the rest of the debates and candidate forums we’ve seen over the last year, it might as well have been a unicorn convention.

In part, that’s because almost no one in the state is paying attention to the comptroller’s race. That’s unfortunate, because it is a hugely influential and important position. The comptroller provides the Legislature with an estimate of how much money the state can spend over each two-year cycle. If the comptroller bungles the estimate, legislators will either spend too much money or, as has happened under the tenure of incumbent Susan Combs, will make sweeping cuts to state government they didn’t have to make. (Combs is partially responsible for the gargantuan cuts in 2011 to the state’s public education system, which proved to be essentially unnecessary.)

And that lack of attention is unfortunate for Democrat Mike Collier, because it’s hard to see how many people could watch his debate with state Sen. Glenn Hegar (R-Katy) and come away with the impression that Hegar deserves the state’s purse strings more than he. Collier, a former partner at the global accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, is an ideal technocrat: He’s passionate about good government and good accounting, and he lacks political ambition. Hegar was a so-so senator who doesn’t have much of a plan for the office.

The moderator of last night’s debate asked how Collier and Hegar would avoid the kind of foul-ups Combs has had. How would they come up with better revenue estimates? Collier said he’d provide quarterly revenue forecasts, which would help the office more nimbly adjust to economic conditions and give observers a better sense of whether he was doing a good job. He had decades of experience with revenue forecasts, he said.

Combs’ failure was so massive and so inexplicable, he said, that he “personally believes it’s a possibility” that she screwed up the revenue forecasts on purpose to squeeze state government. The office needed an apolitical hand on the till. “We need somebody in the office who knows what they’re doing,” he said, which in Texas is a virtually revolutionary statement. He’d be a “watchdog” that would use the office’s authority to beat back corruption in different crannies of state government.

How would Hegar make sure he wasn’t botching revenue forecasts? Well, he would travel around the state and talk to businessmen, to “get the pulse” of the state, in order to better understand Texas’ “economic vibe.” He’d use “21st century communication technologies,” including YouTube, to spread the word about the comptroller’s office. Well, OK.

Collier called for closing “loopholes” relating to the tax assessment of large industrial and commercial properties, which shifts the state’s tax burden to homeowners. Hegar said a broader fix was necessary, but couldn’t say much about what that fix would be.

Glenn Hegar
State Sen. Glenn Hegar

Collier brought up Hegar’s proposal to abolish property taxes, and replace them with sales taxes—an idea that few policy analysts take seriously but has nonetheless won favor with state GOPers, including lt. governor nominee Dan Patrick. Collier characterized Hegar’s proposal as “tripling sales taxes.” Hegar angrily denied wanting to do so, but then told his TV audience that “consumption taxes are the best method of collection,” seeming to indicate he’d be fine with a shift toward them.

Collier, like his Democratic ticket-mates Sam Houston, running for attorney general, and Leticia Van de Putte, nominee for lt. governor, have won every major newspaper endorsement in the state. Collier projects competence and practicality—Hegar projects ideology and ambition. In a more civically engaged state, Collier would at least have a shot at comptroller. But this is Texas, and the odds are stacked significantly against him.

Still, Collier has been putting in a performance he can be proud of as one of the punchiest members of the Democrats’ good-government ticket. “It’s almost comical that a career politician would lecture a 30-year businessman about job creation,” Collier said of Hegar in his closing statement. Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up one day next year and know the man keeping the state’s books knew what he was doing? “We’re all tired of politics and we’re all tired of politicians,” he added.

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Wendy Davis speaks to students at the University of Texas at Austin, October 27, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Wendy Davis speaks to students at the University of Texas at Austin, October 27, 2014.

On the campus of the University of Texas at Austin today, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis urged a packed room of students to vote and to help her campaign turn out voters. The rally comes as spotty turnout numbers during the first week of early voting have called into question Democrats’ ability to turn out enough voters to make an impact on Election Day, only a week away.

At the rally, Davis told students that her opponent, Greg Abbott, would “shortchange the future of the state.” Davis ran through her campaign’s core arguments—Abbott only cared about his “insider buddies,” and hadn’t used his office to protect the state’s citizens. She highlighted Abbott’s defense of school funding cuts, and told the crowd she would try to win an increase in the minimum wage, increased access to health care, and equal pay laws for women.

“I know very much who I am. I know very much where I come from. It is deeply embedded in me,” she told the crowd. “I am a fighter for people.”

With Davis’ campaign behind in most polls, Democrats have to turn out a large number of unlikely voters to make an impact this cycle. But turnout in the first week of early voting has been low. Davis and other Democrats are traveling the state, hoping to excite their core constituencies.

At Monday’s rally, Davis predicted that young voters would “lift us across the finish line.” She told the young crowd that her campaign “need[s] your help in this next eight days. I need you to make sure that no one stays home. I need you to talk to your friends about the fact that not voting is voting to keep the status quo.”

Afterward, Davis told members of the press that her campaign was in a “place of momentum,” and boasted of her campaign’s “32,000 volunteers.” She blasted recent polls, including one from the Texas Tribune that gave Abbott a 16 point lead, as “internet polls” that were “wildly inaccurate” and didn’t reflect the true state of the race. “The real poll is taking place right now,” she said. “The momentum is going to continue through this week of early voting.”

When a reporter pointed out that turnout has been flat so far—the state’s major population centers have seen fewer voters take advantage of the first week of early voting than in 2010—Davis said the campaign had evidence that “our voters are increasing. And they’re a greater percentage of the overall vote.”

When another reporter pressed her for the source of that belief, Davis said the campaign’s models and data operation showed a more Democratic-favorable electorate coming to the polls. “We’re very encouraged by what we’re seeing in those numbers,” she said. “More people who are inclined to vote for me are showing up and voting.”

She continued to hit Abbott hard on ethics, as she has for much of the campaign. On Abbott’s mishandling of materials relating to the Texas Enterprise Fund, she told a reporter that Abbott “has shown himself to be a dishonest person,” she said, adding that she would fight for “accountability” in office.

Leticia Van de Putte addresses a crowd of students at the University of Texas-Pan American
Christopher Hooks
Leticia Van de Putte addresses a crowd of students at the University of Texas-Pan American, October 23, 2014.

At a campaign event in Edinburg on Thursday, Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor Leticia Van de Putte—with a little help from actress Eva Longoria—made a strong and pointed pitch to a cohort that will be an important factor in whether Democrats put up a strong showing on Nov. 4: young voters of the Rio Grande Valley.

For decades, predominantly Hispanic communities in South Texas have had some of the lowest voter participation rates in the country, and hopes for a Democratic revival in the state are premised partially on raising those rates. On the campus of the University of Texas–Pan American, Van de Putte, along with a number of other speakers, made a multi-pronged argument for the Democratic ticket.

There was the positive case: More civic engagement would help the Valley—the area needed good government to keep growing, and Van de Putte told the crowd of mostly students that she would convince the Legislature to spend more on education and infrastructure.

But Van de Putte also hit her opponent Dan Patrick directly. At a rally the night before in San Antonio, Van de Putte’s mother had been in attendance. “My mom always told me, ‘Leticia, if you can’t say anything nice about somebody, then don’t say anything at all,’” Van de Putte told the Edinburg crowd. “But my mom’s not here.”

Patrick, Van de Putte said, stood for the “past.” He had voted for and supported cuts to education funding, and his rhetoric on the border represented policy preferences that were a threat to the future and stability of South Texas. When Van de Putte told the crowd that one of Patrick’s first acts in office would be to end in-state tuition for undocumented migrants, there was a round of boos from the students. UTPA has a significant number of undocumented students.

Afterwards, Van de Putte spoke to local media and again criticized Patrick’s attitude toward the region. Patrick had ”only been here one or two times,” she said, to “take a picture of him in a gunboat. He understands that to get votes in his primary, he has to insult our families, our culture.”

Earlier this year, Democrats were excited about the prospect of running against Dan Patrick, whose extraordinarily strange and alienating rhetoric during his GOP primary run seemed to present the possibility of being too far-right even for Texas. So far, that hope hasn’t seemed to materialize—most recent polls have Patrick considerably ahead of Van de Putte, doing even better, relatively, than Greg Abbott in his race. But Democrats still hope Patrick excites Hispanic turnout and alienates some number of moderate Republicans.

There was another warning for the students on Thursday. Eva Longoria and Henry R. Muñoz III, co-founders of the Texas-focused Latino Victory, both told students at the rally that “’they’ don’t want you to vote.” Republicans like Patrick were counting on young and Hispanic voters to stay home. “They” might talk about inclusion, and in the importance of voter participation, but they didn’t really care. It served as an implicit criticism of Patrick as well as Abbott, who has been campaigning in the Rio Grande Valley in an effort to bolster the GOP’s Hispanic vote share.

Afterwards, Van de Putte and Longoria worked a ropeline together, and the campaign headed for Corpus Christi, where Abbott had been campaigning with Chuck Norris just the day before. If you needed yet another way to distinguish between the Democratic and Republican tickets this November, there you have it: It’s the Chuck Norris slate vs. the Eva Longoria slate.

Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels
Attorney General Greg Abbott soaks up the applause after announcing he's running for governor.

If you’re a politician who has taken a public position against gay marriage, as Greg Abbott has, there’s a tricky thing you have to do to keep your position cogent. You need an argument for a same-sex marriage ban that doesn’t contradict or aim to invalidate the Supreme Court’s 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia, which struck prohibitions against interracial marriage, including in Texas, and established marriage as one of the core, basic rights enshrined in the Constitution.

That’s proven tough for many anti-gay marriage politicians. When the Supreme Court declined to consider lower court rulings earlier this month, effectively making same-sex marriage legal in a number of states, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who used to argue cases before the high court and so should know better, released a statement asserting that “marriage is a question for the States.”

Yet in Loving, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the court’s unanimous opinion that marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man,” and that the “freedom to marry … cannot be infringed by the State.” When the GOP candidate for attorney general in Wisconsin responded to a question about Loving by saying that he would have defended a ban on interracial marriage in court, too, he was at least being consistent.

When Abbott met with the San Antonio Express-News editorial board recently, reporter Peggy Fikac asked him about Loving. He had defended the state’s gay marriage ban in court recently—would he have defended a ban on interracial marriage? Abbott took a different tack:

“Right now, if there was a ban on interracial marriage, that’s already been ruled unconstitutional,” Abbott pointed out. “And all I can do is deal with the issues that are before me … The job of an attorney general is to represent and defend in court the laws of their client, which is the state Legislature, unless and until a court strikes it down.”

When I said I wasn’t clear if he was saying he would have defended a ban on interracial marriage, he said, “Actually, the reason why you’re uncertain about it is because I didn’t answer the question. And I can’t go back and answer some hypothetical question like that.”

Some hypotheticals are difficult to answer. What if the South had won the Civil War? Is it nobler for a Danish prince to suffer the slings of outrageous fortune or take arms against them? How many roads must a man walk down? This one shouldn’t be particularly difficult. It’s especially odd because Abbott is himself married to a Hispanic woman—though the anti-miscegenation laws struck by Loving were particularly targeted to black-white relationships.

But perhaps Abbott was wise to have dodged the question, because he likely would have defended a ban on interracial marriage, according to his own principles and record. He wouldn’t have known how not to. Abbott hasn’t shown a whole lot of independent spirit during his tenure as AG—he’s bound, he says, to defend whatever the Legislature vomits up:

“Believe me, I would love it,” he added, “The state would look a whole lot more like me right now if I did abandon my role and exercised my magic wand and decided what cases I would defend and which I didn’t, and therefore allowed me to dictate policy in this state.

“But I think that by doing what I do, I am maintaining the policy that I think is appropriate, and that is for each elected official to fulfill their constitutional obligations,” he said.

But while the Attorney General may have to mount some kind of defense of the state, he has “a tremendous amount of discretion” over how aggressively to prosecute those cases, how “effectively” to prosecute cases, and which cases to bring to court. Abbott has been using his stint as AG to campaign for governor for years—he’s brought failed case after failed case against the federal government, costing Texas taxpayers millions. But his hands are tied when it comes to gay marriage and school finance, he insists. He has to aggressively defend bad laws to the last.

Abbott’s tenure has included a number of instances in which he pursued comically bizarre legal arguments in cases for which he could have no reasonable hope of victory—seemingly forfeiting his powers of discretion. In 2008, Abbott chose to defend the state’s ban on the sale of sex toys, a case that emerged from the fallout of Lawrence v. Texas. Over the years, Abbott has deployed novel legal arguments against gay marriage. But this wasn’t a case about gay marriage, a subject that still animates sincere moral disagreements. This was a case about every American’s god-given right to buy dildos.

At the time, anti-sex toy laws were widely understood to be unconstitutional, but Abbott suited up for battle. The state, his lieutenants argued with straight faces before the 5th Circuit, had an interest in “discouraging prurient interests in autonomous sex and the pursuit of sexual gratification unrelated to procreation.” The state of Texas has a pressing interest, Abbott said, in discouraging you from masturbating or blowing your boyfriend. That was just six years ago.

As The Dallas Morning News notes, several past attorneys general, including Abbott’s predecessor John Cornyn, have refused to take part in cases when they felt they’d be in the wrong. But it seems there’s no law so bad Abbott won’t defend it.

Here’s the thing: We’re just two weeks away from Election Day, and we still don’t know much about what kind of governor Greg Abbott would be. Apart from the fishing ads and vague policy proposals, and even given his lengthy record as attorney general, we don’t necessarily know much about what drives him, or his leadership style.

Next session, if the GOP sweeps important races, Abbott will face a divided Legislature, with House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick representing very different policy preferences and styles. Which will Abbott rely more on? How forceful will he be in asserting his own will over the Legislature? Perry used his longevity to turn a relatively weak office into a powerful one: Under Abbott, would the position revert to its former status, or would Abbott seize Perry’s reins?

From time to time, we get little glimpses of Abbott and how he thinks about government. At the second debate, we caught one when Abbott, flustered, said he wouldn’t prevent the Legislature from repealing the Texas DREAM Act. Miscegenation-gate is another interesting episode. Abbott seems more like a follower than a leader, which isn’t a very good sign when you consider the forceful personalities he’ll be clashing with next year.

Vote for me or the little guy gets it, see?
Vote for me or the little guy gets it, see?

Over the last few weeks, the editorial boards of the state’s newspapers have been rolling out their endorsements. On Thursday night, the first major newspaper endorsement in the governor’s race dropped—The Dallas Morning News is backing Greg Abbott.

That’s not particularly surprising. Unlike other statewide races, both Abbott and Wendy Davis are relatively serious, thoughtful people, capable of approximating the kind of serious, thoughtful figure editorial boards like. Texas newspapers have turned heavily against more tarnished GOP figures like Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton, but Abbott’s not really one of them. There’s the added factor that newspapers may aspire to endorse candidates from both parties, and they frankly don’t have many Republican options who meet the low bar of being able to appear serious and thoughtful.

There are plenty of perfectly reasonable arguments in favor of Abbott, and the Morning News gives some of them. But one of their reasons for endorsing Abbott is fascinating. Here it is:

Where Davis would be likely to encounter ideological battles at every turn, Abbott has the best chance to inspire legislative progress.

Davis has fought valiantly. But for all her progressive promise, and alignment with this newspaper on many issues, Texas cannot afford to provoke the kind of partisan stalemate her victory would probably bring, much like the gridlock that has paralyzed Washington. As much as Texas needs to counterbalance its GOP hard-liners, we fear Davis would only invigorate them.

Elect Davis, and GOPers will be so mad they won’t cooperate on anything, just like what happened when Barack Obama took office. This is a really beautiful encapsulation of some of the most depressing features of American politics right now—a reminder that we do government primarily these days by hostage-taking, in contravention of the ostensible norms of representative government. It’s also an assertion that the hostage-takers should win, and a demonstration of why they will keep winning. It’s monumentally demoralizing. But applied to the Texas context, is it right?

What would a Gov. Davis look like? Well, she would probably have little influence over the Legislature. Assume Davis wins and so does Patrick—Davis would be able to get hardly any of her legislative priorities through. Patrick would be preparing to run against her in 2018, and his Senate would kill or mangle almost anything that bore her personal stamp. But Davis would have a veto which would prevent Patrick’s worst bills and initiatives from getting through.

But the Morning News endorsement anticipates something worse—that the conservative Legislature seizes the levers of state government and goes to war against Davis, refuses to budge on any issue, refuses to put together a budget, refuses to consider new and important legislation, until its demands are met and Davis effectively surrenders. In effect, if the people of the state elect Davis to lead them, conservatives in the Legislature—probably led by Patrick—will take Texas hostage.

So the Morning News’ instinct is to reward the hostage-taker, pay the ransom, and keep the state safely gripped by one-party rule. On the one hand, it feels like a pretty bleak misperception of how small-r republican government is supposed to work. It’s especially odd because the endorsement urges Abbott to be “a moderating influence” for his party—a bit like a liberal urging his radical-left friends to “work inside the system.”

It seems probable that Patrick will be the dominant figure of the 2015 legislative session, not Abbott. It would be very difficult to make the case that a Gov. Abbott will be better at containing Patrick than a Gov. Davis, with a veto stamp and a reason to oppose him openly. It seems like extraordinarily wishful thinking to hope Abbott will turn out to be the state’s version of a Rockefeller Republican. On Friday, the Houston Chronicle and the Austin American-Statesman issued strong endorsements for Davis, in part because of the belief that putting Davis in the governor’s mansion would provide a check on the state GOP’s worst impulses.

But on the other hand, the Morning News might just be conceding to reality. Certain features of the American system of government simply aren’t working as well as they used to. One fundamental cause of that is that the two parties have become ideologically purified—no longer is there much overlap between Republicans and Democrats in Congress, and they have little reason to work together. But the way that problem manifests itself most severely is within the Republican Party, and its willingness to throw gum in the system’s gears.

Consider Texas’ extraordinarily polarized politics. As the state inevitably moves toward a two-party system, it’s easy to anticipate Texas GOPers picking up the tactics of John Boehner and Ted Cruz. Patrick’s probable victory may be one sign that’s already happening.

That’s also a pretty big problem for Democrats. As long as the economy is going OK here—without a prolonged drop in oil prices, or the bursting of a regional real estate bubble—a lot of people will be a little frightened of the implications of a competitive two-party system. It’s not unlike the way a lot of people feel in a truly one-party system—be it the PRI in Mexico, Augusto Pinochet’s Chile during the 1988 plebiscite, or China today. Why mess with (relative) success? Why leave the devil you know for the devil you don’t?

In Texas that feeling is shared, apparently, by the editorial board of the state’s second-largest newspaper.

Mr. and Mrs. Tony Tinderholt
tonytinderholt.com
Mr. and Mrs. Tony Tinderholt

Here’s a hypothetical on a lot of people’s minds during election season: Exactly how fringe, how whacked-out, how seemingly unbalanced does a Republican candidate in Texas have to be to risk losing a GOP-leaning district to a presentable, modest Democrat? A lot of Dems, aghast at how far right the state GOP has moved, go into their campaigns thinking they’re going to come out on the fortunate side of that divide. But they’re usually disappointed.

But after Nov. 4, there’s a small chance that we might be able to call that fulcrum the “Tinderholt point.” Up in Arlington’s House District 94, a conservative activist named Tony Tinderholt is helping us put the proposition to the test once again. The district is currently represented by Diane Patrick, a moderate-ish GOPer who earned the ire of conservative purity groups like Empower Texans before losing her primary to Tinderholt, a virtually unknown conservative activist.

His Democratic opponent in the general election is a fellow named Cole Ballweg, a friendly guy who exemplifies the kind of moderate Democrat who runs in Texas suburbs these days. He emphasizes his history as a small business owner, preaches moderation on guns, health care, abortion, and other issues, and wants to help make “smart investments” in Texas’ future.

House District 94 is pretty conservative—Diane Patrick was mostly unopposed through her four-term tenure, and in 2012 Barack Obama won only 38 percent of the district’s votes—so normally this would be pretty easy. The guy with the ‘R’ next to his name wins, and it barely matters what the Democrat says. Except: Tinderholt might be the weirdest GOP state House candidate this cycle. He’s one of the most off-the-rails politicians you’ll find in the country right now. He’s the closest Texas voters are going to get to achieving their long-held dream of electing a gun.

In September, a video of Tinderholt addressing a 9/12 group in the Metroplex emerged. It featured a lengthy, hallucinogenic screed from Tinderholt about this summer’s border crisis, in which Tinderholt, seeming to channel Travis Bickle, wandered in and out of lucidity as he prophesied that “people were going to die” on the border and that’s “the only thing that’s going to stop the invasion of our country.” He called for sending American troops into Mexico to stop border-crossers.

He told the crowd: “Our border will be secure when we arm it and stop the people from coming across.” The whole speech, including a disturbing section in which Tinderholt mentions the “disgusting” and “gross” things the “cute children” coming across the border are going to be forced to do, lasts some 20 minutes, and it never really gets any better.

It was the first of many pieces of Tinderholt-related weirdness to come down the pipeline. Recently, Ballweg’s campaign released more footage of the GOP candidate addressing members of Open Carry Tarrant County, the fringe gun group that has been terrifying random groups of people around Fort Worth and has been repudiated by both its ostensible parent group, Open Carry Texas, and the NRA.

Before an Open Carry Tarrant County demonstration, Tinderholt speaks to the group, promising that his election to the House will get them what they want and warning them about police interference. “I will author legislation that’s what you want, that’s what you want passed,” Tinderholt says. “If they act foolish, smile and come find Kory [Watkins, Tinderholt's friend and an Open Carry activist]. If I’m not here, he’ll call me.” In another video, an open carry protester tells another about the hopeful state rep: “This guy’s got our back 100 percent,” he says. “Tony Tinderholt has said, if the police ever harass you, call me immediately.”

After another demonstration, Tinderholt again urges protesters not to get too riled, because “Konni Burton, myself and a whole bunch of other people in the Senate and in the House plan on offering open carry legislation,” Tinderholt says, “that is gonna do away with restrictions like in hospitals and churches, all these places that are just like military bases,” presumably in that they currently ban personal firearms.

Tinderholt remains the probable victor, and he’s been personally backed by figures like Ted Cruz and Dan Patrick. But there’s been backlash against Tinderholt in the last couple of months. Ballweg has been endorsed by a number of Republicans, including two Arlington City Council members that Tinderholt has fought with in the past, and Dr. Ned Patrick, Diane Patrick’s husband. The Arlington police and firefighters associations have endorsed Ballweg, along with the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, which predominantly endorses Republicans. Ballweg’s campaign has publicized an internal poll that puts him two points behind Tinderholt.

In a strongly-worded editorial—headline: “Invading Mexico is Not a Good Plan”—the Fort Worth Star-Telegram endorsed Ballweg and urged Arlington voters to reject Tony Tinderholt’s views, for what it’s worth. Though it acknowledged that the Republican was favored to take the district, “just as it has for at least three decades,” the paper’s editorial board expressed a small glimmer of hope that he wouldn’t. “Maybe not this year—or at least, it shouldn’t.”

One potentially discouraging sign for Democrats is that no one really seems to be investing in the race right now. Ballweg only has about $12,000 in the bank as of late September—and Tinderholt only has $5,000. But who knows, maybe the “moderate Republicans” people talk so much about will finally make themselves manifest. Can you be this nutty and win? Let’s see.

Rick Perry Showcases Bush-on-Steroids Foreign Policy

In London, the Texas governor urges the West to have "moral clarity" on the Middle East but offers few suggestions.
Rick Perry
Patrick Michels
Rick Perry speaks outside the Travis County courthouse Thursday, August 19, 2014.

Gov. Rick Perry is running for president again, and presidential candidates need Issues on which to take Strong Stands. So Perry has decided to build his run for president around foreign policy, and particularly, around the growing, all-enveloping catastrophe in the world’s most complex and politically intractable region—the secondary effects of the Syrian Civil War, and the rise of the Islamic State.

Perry—he of the oops, remember—will wade waist-deep into a conflict so clockwork-complicated and massive in scope that people who have been studying the neighborhood their entire lives can’t even figure out what’s going on any given day. He will provide perfect, Windex-wiped clarity, and demonstrate his great capacity for strategic thinking. This sounded like a great idea to someone on Perry’s team.

So on Tuesday, the governor found himself in London, in front of a crowd at the Royal United Services Institute, a distinguished think tank that has served as a place for discussion of defense issues since the Queen’s strongest foe was the Prussian Army. RUSI advertised that Perry would “analyse the challenges the United States and Western allies face in confronting threats to the international community in the twenty-first century,” a pretty comprehensive subject for a 40-minute address. Of course, Perry didn’t meet that promise—his speech was devoid of policy proposals or much analysis—but he did tell us a lot about how he thinks about the world.

America should plunge itself headlong into the civil wars now happening in the Middle East. We should “defend the lives of innocent Muslim people” just like we did in “Iraq and Afghanistan.” Dissent within the county should be curbed, because it causes moral “confusion” which inhibits our ability to do battle with our foes.

Perry’s foreign policy as outlined in his address is the doctrine of bright colors and high contrast—like a methamphetamine-boosted mash-up of speeches from the George W. Bush era. Perry told the British policy analysts that the Western coalition had to “hold nothing back if it will better assure our security,” without saying what would better assure our security. As for the jihadis, Perry said, “in all our conduct toward this enemy, there can be no illusions and no compromise of all that we are defending.”

We’re fighting, Perry said, for “the rightness and truth of the values of the West.” It was those values that led the West to protect “innocent Muslim people. Whether in Iraq or in Afghanistan or Syria today, or back in the 1990s in Kosovo.” The West’s humanitarian actions in Afghanistan and Iraq were part of what made criticism of the West so distasteful, he said.

“There are always people ready to insist that our societies could stand some improvement too—that we have our own injustices to correct. Such a posture of moral equivalence is seen now and then on the left,” Perry said. It’s a posture that “pretends not to see the most basic of distinctions. The shortcomings of Western democracy, and the systemic savagery” of groups like ISIS “all get mixed up as one,” he continued, describing it as a sickening “attitude of cultural relativism.”

Doubts about the course of the United States, and about the wisdom of intervening abroad “reflect a kind of deep confusion, at a time when moral clarity is at a premium,” he said. Later: “Without confidence in the truth and goodness of our own values, the great moral inheritance of our own culture, how are we going to deal with the falsehood of theirs?”

It’s a really bizarre sentiment, and not one that seems to accurately characterize what’s happening in the country right now, where’s there’s no great love for ISIS but a great deal of honest disagreement about what to do about the group. Open societies have always liked to believe that they benefit from debate and diversity of opinion—that they have strength, while closed societies and totalitarian movements ultimately break. But according to Perry, only purity and unity of thought will allow us to confront the current threat.

When Perry turned to the issue of Muslim assimilation in Europe, the language got stronger. “Suddenly, there are these closed enclaves in great cities,” Perry said, “where you have to be a fellow fanatic, or at least a fellow Muslim, to enter.” He added: “Of course, we all know who’s especially unwelcome in these nasty little no-go zones—a Jew.”

Forceful action had to be taken, Perry said, soundingly momentarily like a member of the European far right. “To every extremist, it has to be made clear: We will not allow you to exploit our tolerance, so that you can import your intolerance,” he said. “You will live by exactly the same standards the rest of us by, and if that comes as jarring news: Welcome to civilization.”

Western values, Perry says, helps “instill a yearning and a hope to be better and to do better by others” and “see the worth and the goodness of everyone.” Few others in the world hope for a better world for their children or see the universal value of human life. “You don’t find all that in every tradition,” Perry said. “Its abundance in our Western tradition is to be cherished, tended, and protected.

Perry may think moral confusion is the supreme danger to the United States, but moral clarity can be considerably more deadly. We know that we don’t like ISIS. The Islamic State is not good. But how to oppose them? This was not a subject of Perry’s talk.

Look briefly at a very small part of the current situation in the Middle East. The United States has spun the roulette wheel and determined that our best current ally is the Kurds. But there is no such thing as “the Kurds.” There are Turkish Kurds, Syrian Kurds, Iraqi Kurds and Iranian Kurds, and each of those four groups can be dissected and divided several ways. Each have complicated relationships with each other, experience significant internal political disagreements, and exist in a difficult-to-outline set of concentric circles of alliances with neighboring states, armed factions, criminal groups, global oil companies and international powers.

Right now, there’s a serious risk that the civil war in Syria and Iraq could spill over into Turkey, where the government may be relaunching a decades-long military campaign against the Kurdish PKK. There, no “moral clarity” is possible.

The Obama administration has been coolly detached and utilitarian in its use of American military power, and reluctant—until recently—to engage in bloodthirsty hyperbole. Come 2016, will Americans be looking for a return to Bush’s certainty? Or will they want to stay far away from the big brawl?

Maybe Perry will sound better at this the more he does it. At RUSI, it sounded rough. He concluded by striking the pose of the unctuous Anglophile.

“You British always sound so darned smart and refined, no matter what you’re saying,” Perry said, concluding his speech. “And it’s not just because of your many cultural exports: from James Bond and Julie Andrews to Simon Cowell and One Direction.”

He continued: “We Americans feel this affinity, and we admire you as we do no other nation, because of who you are and what you stand for.”

Perry thinks he’s figured out what America stands for. If he’s right, it’s going to be a bloody decade.

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The Wheelchair Ad

It's not as bad as you've heard, but it may not have been smart.
Greg Abbott greets his family onstage Sunday
Patrick Michels
Attorney General Greg Abbott is greeted onstage by his wife Cecilia and his daughter Audrey after he announces he's running for governor in San Antonio.

 

By now, a tremendous amount has been written about the ad the Davis campaign released last Friday. But since the campaign is continuing to focus on issues raised by the ad this week, including at a press conference in Fort Worth this morning, it’s worth saying a bit about it. Here’s the ad, in case you missed it:

It’s the first five seconds of the ad that are getting all of the attention. The ad starts with a picture of an empty wheelchair. Abbott, of course, is disabled. The voiceover begins with an extraordinarily odd opening line: “A tree fell on Greg Abbott. He sued and got millions. Since then, he’s spent his career working against other victims.”

The rest of the ad is a recitation of points that Davis has hit Abbott with in the past, encapsulated by the idea that Abbott is an “Austin insider,” and Davis is “working for all Texans.” A number of headlines roll by on a black background under menacing music: One of them relates to the Kirby vacuum company rape case, the subject of Davis’ first ad. One of them relates to the case of Christopher Duntsch, an appallingly incompetent doctor who killed and injured patients and whose hospital was protected from liability by tort reform laws. The point: Greg Abbott got his, then helped keep that privilege from others. He’s a hypocrite.

When the ad was released, the internet erupted in outrage. What to make of it all?

It’s possible to think a lot of the criticism of the ad is silly and overheated while still finding the ad itself harmful to the Davis campaign. When the ad dropped late last Friday—never a good time for clear-headed analysis—a critical mass quickly formed on Twitter, as national pundits passed the ad back and both.

To pick one extreme example among liberal commentators, Ben Dreyfuss at Mother Jones shot pretty wide of the mark when he wrote that the ad was “basically calling Abbott a cripple,” and accused the Davis campaign of saying that “Greg Abbott is unfit to serve because he is handicapped.” I can’t find that in the ad. The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake called the spot “one of the nastiest campaign ads you will ever see.” It’s not even the nastiest ad in this race—for my money, that distinction still belongs to Davis’ first ad, a sleekly exploitative spot that used a grimly allusive true-crime reenactment to turn the story of a horrific rape into a political cudgel with which to bash Abbott.

But if some of the criticism was overblown, there’s a defense of the ad from Davis supporters that misses the mark. The ad is about Greg Abbott’s hypocrisy, and nothing else—they say that the press and others who highlight the treatment of Abbott’s accident in the ad are being willfully obtuse. But with a political ad, as with anything else a person creates and puts into the world, the perception of the thing is indistinguishable from the thing itself. You can’t say what a thing is and wall it off from the interpretation of others. Politics is about managing popular perceptions. And if a large number of people find something to be in poor taste, there’s probably something to that.

Would it have been possible to use Abbott’s accident to highlight his hypocrisy on tort reform in a better way? Probably. It might have been better to avoid altogether, but it seems possible that the Davis people could have approached the subject of Abbott’s accident more delicately. One problem with the ad, it seems to me, is that a viewer might take the message that there was something nefarious about Abbott’s original lawsuit. The sinister opening flashes the headline “Abbott could receive $10.7 million” on screen as the narrator stresses the word “millions,” as if he was describing the illicit use of a private jet.

Have you seen that ISIS ad that Dan Patrick started running last week? As ridiculous as it was, Patrick’s talk about ISIS only took up the ad’s first four seconds. They led with it because it was punchy and they knew it would get attention. Davis’ campaign did the same thing, and it worked, although it may not be the kind of attention they were hoping for.

Is it possible the ad’s high profile will help Davis? Well, it’s helped give her message a boost. The ad has been watched more than 375,000 times as of mid-day Monday—it’s the most-watched video her campaign has produced so far. But a lot of the viewers will be watching it because of the mass condemnation.

At the press conference this morning, Davis was introduced by two disabled-rights supporters and an advocate for the rights of sexual assault victims. The event was partially a defense of the ad, and partially an opportunity to re-emphasize talking points in front of what was presumably a larger audience than normal.

Southern Methodist University law student Lamar White, who is disabled, opened the press conference with a strong condemnation of Abbott’s career as it related to the defense of victims’ rights. “Why does he deserve justice and they do not?” he asked. “I’m grateful to the Wendy Davis campaign for reminding people” of Abbott’s actions.

Victims’ rights advocate Livinia Masters said much the same, emphasizing that Abbott “rightly sought justice for himself,” but “turned his back on others who sought the same justice.”

Another disability advocate, Laurie Oliver, had stronger words: “Shame on you, Greg Abbott. Your hypocrisy makes you unfit to be governor.”

When Davis took to the stage, she emphasized that Abbott had “rightly” sued following his accident, and that she was “glad” he won his case. “He deserved justice for the terrible tragedy he endured,” Davis said. “But then, he turned around and built his career working to deny the very same justice he received to his fellow Texans rightly seeking it for themselves.”

Again: “Greg Abbott has built a career kicking down the ladder behind him,” Davis said. “We need to call this what it is: hypocrisy.”

In the end, it’s hard not to come away from this episode reflecting on the demoralizing race we’ve had so far. Neither of these campaigns seem to be inspiring many people. Abbott’s ads have been relentlessly, painstakingly empty—even the ads ostensibly about policy say little of value about what kind of governor he’d be, a question for which we still have few answers.

And Davis’ ads have been relentlessly negative. I find it hard to believe that many Texans know very much about what kind of governor she’d be, even now. Maybe both are running the smartest plays available to them—but it’s not exactly a good sales pitch for civic engagement.

Dan! Dan! DAN! THEY'RE RIGHT BEHIND YOU!
Facebook
Dan! Dan! DAN! THEY'RE RIGHT BEHIND YOU!

We’re nearing the second half of October, which means one thing. Spooky specters and grave ghouls abound. Wizards and wraiths walk the land. Sinister “visitors” seeking power and riches appear, seemingly from nowhere, to darken the path of the normally blissfully unaware average Texan. Detritus from the paranormal forces, engaged in their never-ending battle, cloud storefront windows and residential lawns.

Suburban citizens, frightened half to death already by the proliferating clouds of contagion to our north, and the heathen zombie army to our south, steel themselves in their homes to face the army of doorbell-ringers arriving with the same terrifying query: “Are you planning to vote on November 4?”

1) Earlier this week, Dan Patrick, full-time biblical scholar and hobbyist candidate for lieutenant governor, posteth some wise words on Facebook. No, seriously, here they are:

10636334_10152301150541836_3815276338748582753_n

But a couple days later, the pot and salvia smoke had ventilated out of Patrick’s campaign headquarters, and cooler heads prevailed. That hippie bullshit had to go, man. So on Wednesday, we got a peek of Patrick’s first TV ad of the general election, featuring a very high concentration of fear-of-man, practically weapons-grade. Turns out everyone’s favorite new jihadi militia, the Islamic State—personally backed by Sheikha Leticia al-Vande al-Putte—has already made short work of Arkansas and is coming across the border to exterminate whatever small portion of the state’s residents survive the Ebolapocalypse. (In fairness, Van de Putte’s disturbing and problematic new ad probably made this line of attack inevitable.)

Patrick got made fun of for his ad, which is understandable. But later: Vindication. GOPer Duncan Hunter, California’s first action-doll congressperson, went on Fox News with gasp-worthy news. The border patrol had caught “at least 10” ISIS fighters. Even Greta Van Susteren seemed to have a hard time swallowing it, but it was good enough for some. They’re coming. The dream is real. Patrick posted the story on his Facebook page. It’s been shared more than 2,500 times, and has more than 500 comments. Here’s a sprinkling:

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 11.23.04 PM

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 11.21.59 PM

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 11.21.03 PM

Then, Hunter’s story fell apart. The Department of Homeland Security called it “categorically false.” Hunter’s spokesperson meekly offered that his office had “evidence from reliable sources” that “foreign nationals” who may “not technically be ISIS fighters” but were “suspected” of doing something naughty “had been captured.” OK. Patrick, ashamed to have accidentally sowed the seeds of panic and fear with bad information, holding himself to a continually high standard, took down the post imme—hahaha, no, sorry, I kid. I kid.

But that little flap aside, he’s doggedly working on the real issues:

Dan Patrick
October 4 · Edited
I had a lot of comments on what did fried sweet tea taste like, how is it made, & why did I try it.

1. I tried it because my grandson wanted me to try it. All grandparents
understand.
2. It tasted like a warm fried donut with a cool liquid inside that taste just like sweet tea.
3. I have no idea how to make it but one of our commenters, Brenda, supplied the answer. By the way it was actually very tasty.

Deep Fried Sweet Tea – The South’s #1 beverage has been deep fried! Home brewed sweet tea is blended into a custard filling. The custard is given a graham cracker crust, deep fried, & topped off with homemade sweet tea syrup. The crispy, golden graham cracker crust gives way to a warm & gooey center that’s packed with sweet tea flavor.

Dan Patrick 2014—Crispy, golden graham cracker crust; warm & gooey center; sweet tea flavor. (No Mexicans.)

2) Up in Senate District 10, GOP candidate and tea party organizer Konni Burton has a new ad out this week. It’s a little weird. Normally in these things, the goal is to make a candidate seem warm and friendly—no matter how cold, robotic, tired, angry, hungry and unwittingly alienated from his or her true self by late capitalism they might be. But Burton never speaks, even to say “I’m Konni Burton, and I approve this message.” No one shown in the ad speaks, unlike her opponent Libby Willis’ more lively ad, which features, at least, a character of sorts. Is Burton trapped in there?

The entire thing consists of B-roll, dental office music, and a slightly off-putting voiceover that issues proclamations, like “Active in her church,” and “Konni Burton will eliminate wasteful spending.” It’s like a video stock photo. It’s a tea party lullaby.

But in its unadulterated banality, it somehow gives the impression that something terrible—something grim and unknowable and vast—lurks just below the surface. I took a stab at pairing the video with a more fitting soundtrack.

Here’s Konni Burton looking at things:

yeah these are nice... haha
yeah these are nice… haha
finally copped those new prince albums... i mean, damn, girl
finally copped those new prince albums… i mean, damn, girl
spending.... it's bad, in my opinion
spending too much…. it’s bad, imho
i mean sure the trailer looks good. but every pt anderson movie since boogie nights has been a massive letdown. first you've got...
i mean sure the trailer looks good. but every pt anderson movie since boogie nights has been a massive letdown. first you’ve got…

Fortunately for Burton, she’s running on more than being an attentive listener. Old people vote a lot, and Burton wants them to vote for her, a lot. What’s something old people don’t like? Being murdered.

KB Mail piece 1

Are you a grandmother in the Fort Worth area? Do you remember how that family doctor you go to sometimes jokes about how much he’d love to buy your house? He’s coming for you. You’re in his goddamn sights and you probably won’t win in a footrace. Only Konni Burton can make sure you’re still drawing breath for Kaitlyn’s bat mitzvah.

It’s fear-mongering on a level that’s kind of awe-inspiring. It makes other GOP pols seem lazy. ISIS? Sharia law? Muslims in general? Black people? Ebola? Benghazi? The cartels? Screw all that noise—Konni Burton has identified the real threat. It’s doctors. You will never feel safe again.

Vote or die.

3) Ken Paxton is going to make Greg Abbott look like Clarence Darrow.

Screen Shot 2014-10-10 at 12.11.53 AM

Don’t worry, Texans. These frightening folk are gonna go back in the closet just after Halloween—but the sequel, which starts in January, is going to be a positively defrightful thing. By which I mean to say…

THE END?

OK, but what's their position on Medicaid Expansion?
YouTube
OK, but what's their position on Medicaid expansion?

The next lt. governor is going to have a lot of serious problems. The public education system has been weakened and tarnished by years of cuts and legislative meddling, and the transportation system is running out of money, even while the property tax-heavy tax structure in Texas has reached a breaking point. We might be on the verge of a taxpayer revolt—but without the strong government services to show for it.

Hospitals are clamoring for Medicaid expansion, while many doctors are dead-set against it, and the poor are left to suffer. At some point, the lt. governor is probably going to have to help broker a new model for public education financing, thanks to the courts—one of the most difficult things the Legislature ever has to do, a task Solomon himself would have trouble with. And he or she is going to have to tackle all of that at a time when every statewide official is new, and with a lot of new senators besides.

So naturally, Dan Patrick’s first general election ad opens with the Islamic State:

There was a fun period of time after the primary runoff where people hoped Patrick might be moderating his public profile. The debate was one datapoint, but I think we can safely dispose of that dream now.

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