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.