The more things change, the more the governor campaigns.
On January 20, 2015, Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick were sworn in amid inauguration festivities intended to signal the beginning of a new era. Which it was: Their respective predecessors, Rick Perry and David Dewhurst, had dominated Texas politics for fifteen years. The cannon fire, F-16 flyovers and barbecue, courtesy of corporate donors who’d soon have bills in front of the Legislature, were meant to establish their arrival as a definitive break between past and present.
We knew what Patrick stood for, more or less, but Abbott was a little harder to pin down. He was a conservative attorney general, but he’d never served in the Legislature and it was hard to predict what kind of stance he’d take on the day-to-day policy fights that would be soon be consuming his attention. Some people — both Republicans and Democrats — privately hoped he’d be more serious and thoughtful than his predecessor, who spent his last five years in office getting ready to run for president. In contrast, it was rumored this would be Abbott’s last elected office.
Shortly before Abbott took up residence in the governor’s mansion, Brian Sweany, the editor of Texas Monthly, wrote an open letter to the newly elected guv, co-bylined by the magazine’s staff, in which they exhorted Abbott to listen to the better angels of his nature, in much the same way a pastor might. Abbott’s conservative credentials, wrote Sweany, gave him the freedom to advocate for more judicious government investment in state services where they really were needed, if he would be bold enough to try it.
That meant shoring up resources “beyond just roads and infrastructure” and increasing funding for teachers and English-learning students. Abbott would need to spearhead a shift in tone from “wasteful spending to one of wise investment.” But it could only be done with “steadfastness in the face of predictable criticism.”
Sweany’s letter represented the best imaginable future for Abbott. With a little political bravery, he could rewrite the history of the state in a positive way. But he would have to be willing to work diligently at it, and be a little unpopular with a segment of his base.
So. One year on, how’s he doing?
We should start by noting where Abbott is this week: In Israel, about as far away from home as he could possibly be. He recently met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — but also with Naftali Bennett, the Minister of Education. The party Bennett leads, Jewish Home, belongs to the Israeli far right. Bennett’s ministry recently banned a book about interracial marriage from Israeli schools, and one of his fellow party members has in the past endorsed genocidal language against Palestinian civilians. Though Abbott might not realize it, the mere act of meeting with Bennett is a provocation.So what the hell is the governor of Texas doing over there? He’s advocating for Texas businesses, hypothetically. But the Jewish casino billionaire and right-wing sugar daddy Sheldon Adelson is paying his way, lending Abbott the use of his 737 for the trip. Adelson’s a major right-wing donor who spent nearly $100 million supporting candidates in the 2012 U.S. presidential election. He also owns Israel’s largest newspaper, and uses it and his vast supply of cash to help lend Netanyahu and the Israeli right credibility and support. Nice of Abbott to help, I guess.
The governor pledged, in Israel, that Texas would take steps to ensure no state or local money is invested in Iran. That’s right: Texas’ own sanction regime. The Ayatollah quakes. Now Abbott’s on to the Swiss Alps, to endure the trials of the World Economic Forum in Davos.
It’s the perfect place for Abbott to wrap up his first year in office, inasmuch as it has nothing to do with his actual job. Abbott has won real national attention for precisely three things this year: his Jade Helm letter, his personal war against Syrian refugees, and his bonkers proposal to rewrite the U.S. Constitution, which we may properly call the Articles of Gregfederation. In each case, the primary effect of his actions has been to make us look kinda dumb.
It would be one thing if Abbott was creating space for himself by serving up slabs of red meat in public, and doing noble work in private to change the way state government works for the better. It would even be laudable. But in his first year, we’ve seen little evidence of that, either. Instead of advocating for judicious investment in the state during his first legislative session, he pushed for tax cuts and then stood by while Patrick pushed for more. He declared victory after funding a tiny pre-K program that didn’t even make up for cuts in previous years, and approved a little funding for universities, which tea party lawmakers let slide in part because they were so minor. There’s some more funding for roads, too, but not nearly enough.
And when it came time to address perhaps the most critical issue yet at a state agency during his tenure — poorly devised cuts to the state Medicaid program that threatened to leave thousands of disabled children high and dry — he was mostly silent, hoping the agency and lawmakers would take the blame, disappointing even some Republicans.
Budget problems caused by Texas’ slow response to population growth and years of dishonest accounting also loom. Worse, Abbott’s first legislative session may prove to have been his only chance to make a real mark on the state — collapsing oil prices, which haven’t hit the state’s economy in full just yet, could make damage control the first priority of the next Lege, and, god forbid, subsequent ones. Last year’s budget predicted an average of $80/barrel for oil this year. It’s currently sinking to $20.
Instead of applying himself diligently to the state’s problems, Abbott has focused on showy displays of solidarity with his base: I’ll protect you from the feds, I’ll save you from the Syrians, I’ll rescue the constitution from Obama. I’ll stop Iran when Barry won’t. Meanwhile, Texas, with more needs than ever, is stuck with the mediocre government it probably deserves.
The inauguration, in hindsight, seems now to be a marker of continuity, not change. It’s easy to understand where Perry was coming from in his final years — he was running a perpetual presidential campaign. We all knew he wanted higher office. Why is Abbott still campaigning? Maybe he just doesn’t know how not to, and doesn’t care to learn. Let’s hope he has a nice time in Switzerland.