The story of last night’s Dan Patrick/Julian Castro debate, entertaining though it was, is the story of two politicians, each with bright futures but on radically different trajectories, passing each other like ships in the night. (You can watch the whole thing here: If you enjoy political theater—or even if you just live in this state—it’s well worth it.) Each will feel like they did what they needed to do. Castro landed enough punches for his supporters to argue he “won,” but not enough to corner Patrick or do real damage to his election bid. The debate will become part of the Castro legend, and help him continue his seemingly effortless slide to some kind of higher office.
For his part, Patrick, now that he’s more-or-less freed from his primary runoff fight—Dewhurst’s name didn’t come up once—showed how he’ll be trying to pivot away from some of his more hard-line stances in the primary during this year’s lieutenant governor election. Patrick is a great showman, highly adept at verbal performance after years of hosting talk radio, and he succeeded in evading the campaign-damaging gaffes some hoped would take place in the San Antonio Univision studio that hosted the debate. He got dinged a little bit, but struck Castro too.
If that sounds like an overly clinical analysis, that’s in part because the policy problem at the heart of this thing—the question of what to do about the million-odd undocumented immigrants who live in Texas—wasn’t actually discussed much. The moderator, Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune, seemed aware of (and maybe, contributed to) the artifice of the event in his introduction. Smith ventured a guess as to what each politician needed to accomplish: Patrick needed to show he was tough, but compassionate, and Castro needed to show he was compassionate, but also tough.
“I’m compassionate, and I’m not tough,” opened Patrick. He expressed his hope that Castro would “stay away from politics” and address the “the most important public policy issue” that faces Texas. This is, in the immortal words of California Gov. Jerry Brown, barely a fart. As anyone who followed the GOP lieutenant governor primary can tell you, “Compassionate, not tough” is not a slogan that would have appeared on a Patrick campaign bumper sticker. When he talked about immigrants to voters, he emphasized the violence they brought to Texas, the drain on the economy. He expressed a belief in the general policy of “standing up for American citizens first;” he called himself “Dan Patrick, Border Champion.”
At an October candidate forum held by the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party, he told an awed crowd that the border was his No. 1 issue because of the “141,000 illegal aliens put in our jails who committed 447,000 crimes, committed 5,000 murders and 2,000 rapes” between 2008 and 2012. No time was given to the consideration of migrants who might not be rapists. (And four months later, the San Antonio Express-News pointed out Patrick’s numbers were inflated.)
If Patrick was indeed a compassionate man, he could have had no better character witness than Miguel “Mike” Andrade. Andrade came forward during the primary with the news that he had worked at Patrick’s chain of sports bars in the 1980s. He and his friends were undocumented, Andrade said. He told a Houston TV station that his boss “offered sympathy over their anguish at living so far from their loved ones and being constantly in fear of being deported.” When Andrade’s mother fell ill in Guanajuato, Patrick offered to help him find a way to visit. He said Patrick tried to help him gain legal status after President Reagan’s amnesty.
When Andrade’s claims surfaced in February, it presented a more appealingly complex picture of Patrick. Was he more thoughtful than he had pretended to be? Then Patrick fired an unforgettable reply to the “accusations” to Breitbart Texas: “The worker says I was personally very kind to him and goes on to allege other preposterous events that are not true and which he offers no evidence.”
Now, Patrick’s hoping to position himself to be the “compassionate” one by demanding a total clamp-down on the border. He seeks to substitute the problem of illegal immigration with the evils of human trafficking. The broken system “forces people to come here illegally,” which puts them in danger. “People should be able to come here in honor and dignity. It’s not right for a man who’s crossing the border with his family to watch his wife and daughter raped by a coyote at midnight as they cross the border.”
This is premised on a couple of nested fallacies. One is the idea that border really can be “secured”—it can’t be. Making it harder for people to come here gives coyotes and human traffickers more power, not less. And short of totally opening the doors to legal immigration, there will always be a greater number of people who want to come here than are permitted to legally. This is a fundamental truth.
Second, Patrick hasn’t been a reliable supporter of measures that would alleviate the demand for the services of coyotes. In 2007, after a tour of the Rio Grande Valley with the area’s legislative delegation, Patrick endorsed a guest worker program, arguing that it would help border security—that it could come before “securing the border.” By 2012, as conservative anger on border issues was ramping up, he opposed including a guest worker program in the state Republican platform. That plank was supported by Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, Patrick’s opponent in the recent lite guv primary, and Patrick gleefully used it against him. Now Patrick says he’s for a guest worker program in the future—not until we have a secure border—but against the concept of a guest worker program being included in the Republican party platform. He thinks the GOP should strip it back out this year. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.
But this is still new rhetoric for Patrick. And it’s also a neat trick to get away from talking about what to do with the immigrants who are already here, some of whom were in the audience. Now that he’s about to gain real power, Patrick opposes letting people like Andrade become citizens despite the fact that many undocumented residents, if not most, will be here for decades to come. And that’s the main public policy problem Texas faces.
The other tactic Patrick employed last night—describing what he talks about as high-minded policy, and dismissing what others talk about as cheap politics—is nothing new. In the primary, when he was criticized for hypocrisy or untruthfulness by his opponents, he would charge them with launching personal attacks. When he attacked them, he would proudly announce that he was sticking to policy. But it’s amazing how often he uses it, and how successfully—it’s an effective way for him to set boundaries on the conversation and steer things to a place where he’s comfortable. All last night, Patrick criticized Castro for engaging in partisan demagoguery—then succeeded in spending a fair portion of the night talking about either Obamacare or abortion.
“If a mom comes across the border pregnant, I want her to have that child, I want her to have that Hispanic child,” Patrick said. “You believe she has a right to take that baby. I want to protect that baby, because we are born in the image of God.”
Castro, for his part, tried to steer Patrick back to the question of what to do with those living here without authorization now. He tried to goad Patrick into misstepping, contrasting his previous “big bad wolf” impersonation with his current “little red riding hood.” Or, memorably, “Cinderella.” That proved tough to do—Patrick is an excellent dissembler. But will changing the subject be enough this November? When Patrick asserted that he was the Republican candidate Democrats most feared, Castro disagreed. “You’re our meal ticket back in,” he said.