Ah, love triangles. Throughout history, they’ve provided rich dramatic material. But they’re no fun to be in, and almost as un-fun to be around. Bruised egos, miscommunication and ill will. Matters of the heart get so messy.
The Legislature is also premised on a three-way relationship, though, one hopes, platonic. There’s Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus. We know where they stand, roughly—Patrick’s a right-winger who goes with his gut, and Straus is a cautious and analytical moderate. Which of them will form a stronger relationship with the governor?
The answer to that question will say a lot about how the 84th Legislature unfolds. Who’s winning?
1) Dan Patrick has so much love to give, man.
There are many different ways to form a bond with a political partner, but Patrick’s is pretty curious. A few weeks ago, I wrote that the lite guv’s strategy for dealing with the governor appeared to be to “hug him to death and hope compliance follows,” but if anything I may have undersold it. Dan’s mash notes for Greg are getting stronger:
—At a Feb. 10 press conference on extending the National Guard border deployment, Patrick emphasized multiple times that he stood “shoulder to shoulder” with the governor. They were in close physical proximity to each other. So good so far, I guess. He was tamer in his words for Straus: “We stand shoulder to shoulder with the governor, and we will work with the speaker.”
—After the State of the State address on Feb. 17, Patrick reported that the two had achieved some sort of mind-meld. “I could have written that speech,” he told a reporter. In a statement, he said that Abbott said “everything I wanted to hear in the State of the State address.”
—Another week goes by, and the two have become even closer, perhaps dangerously so. On Feb. 24, Patrick holds a press conference to discuss his tax cut proposals. Is Abbott on board? “We’re so close shoulder-to-shoulder you couldn’t put a piece of paper between us.”
That’s abnormally close. Patrick and Abbott, apparently, have entered into a collapsing orbit like two doomed celestial bodies. At any moment—perhaps this has happened already—their masses will merge and become one. Has anyone seen Greg Abbott lately?
2) The one with the fear of commitment
The problem for Patrick is that the governor has shown no signs of reciprocating this love. There are even a few signs that he doesn’t particularly enjoy this level of affection.
When Patrick had that press conference on border security—the one where he emphasized over and over that the governor stood “shoulder to shoulder” with him—the press waited most of the day for a corroborating statement from Abbott’s office. But it didn’t come. This was strange. It fell to Straus to reply to Patrick’s event, which was attended by every member of the GOP Senate caucus. And Straus’ response was very, very cool.
The State of the State—the one Patrick says he could have written himself—contained only cursory plugs for Patrick’s policy agenda. He mentioned school choice, sure, but not in the way Patrick would have done. His plan for border security carefully marks the halfway point in between the House’s proposal and the Senate’s. And several of his emergency items come with a price tag, like his university research initiative, which could prove unpopular in the spending-averse Senate, especially since the senators have their own budget priorities.
Meanwhile Abbott and the Senate seem to be competing with each other to offer the biggest tax cut proposals: The original Senate budget included $4 billion in tax cuts; then, Abbott proposed $4.4 billion; and Patrick answered with $4.6 billion. If the tax cut proposals continue to grow at this rate, state government will have abolished itself by May.
Does Patrick’s Senate respect Abbott? We saw one test of that last week, when the Senate Committee on Nominations met to consider Abbott’s three appointments to the University of Texas System Board of Regents. Conservative activists like those associated with Midland oilman Tim Dunn hate Abbott’s nominees.
The hearing was the first public split between Abbott and legislators—Republican senators attempted to tear his nominees to pieces in a five-hour hearing so intense it fell to a Democrat, state Sen. José Rodríguez, to offer Abbott a few sympathetic words.
It may have been the first visible rift between Abbott and his right, but it won’t be the last. There are many issues on which the moderate, responsible governor that Abbott might like to be is at odds with the wingers in his party, Dan Patrick foremost among them.
Patrick’s predecessor David Dewhurst was weak, but desperate to look strong. He had less and less influence as his tenure in office went along, but he was always sure to make himself visible. Patrick, so far, is doing something approaching the opposite—in his series of policy press conferences, he’s been letting the chairs of the Senate committees take point on their issues, even when the bills they’re offering up are effectively his.
There’s been a lot of talk around Austin that Patrick might make a run for governor in 2018, either because Abbott doesn’t run for re-election or Patrick chooses to primary him. If that’s the game plan, it makes sense for Patrick to offer Abbott his loving support now. There’s no point in showing his ambition this far out—it’s a bad look. But if the divide keeps growing between the Senate right-wing, encouraged by enforcer groups that have always had pretty tame feelings for the guv, and Abbott—who could blame Patrick for that?
3) The strong, silent type
Straus isn’t just ideologically different from Patrick, he’s cognitively and emotionally different: He’s cool and analytical where Patrick is hot and passionate.
In this year’s speaker race, which Straus won easily, there was some speculation that Patrick’s arrival made House Republicans less willing to support a conservative challenger to Straus. Patrick was an unknown quantity, and a lot of Republicans in the Lege were skeptical. They wanted a speaker who would stand up for them and ignore the ideologues if Patrick’s Senate threatened rural schools, for example.
Is it possible Patrick’s leadership style will encourage Straus to be more vocal about his beliefs, too? When pressed on this question at a UT-Austin event recently, Straus was mostly mum. But his statement on Patrick’s border proposal was remarkably terse: “I appreciate Governor Patrick’s remarks, but Governor Abbott is the Commander in Chief and he will decide whether to extend the National Guard’s deployment.” That’s about as close as you get to seeing one politician tell an ostensible ally to go screw himself in an official statement.
On Monday, a key ally of House leadership, Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), appeared alongside what appeared to be three to four dozen reps—including some Democrats—to talk up the House’s border plan. Bonnen laid out a collection of bills that would seek to bolster law enforcement abilities throughout the state while creating a permanent DPS presence along the border. That would allow the National Guard to be sent home quickly and preempt the need for future border “surges,” like the one Patrick wants to maintain.
Those “surges” have always been more about political need rather than practical need, so it’s hard to see how some more state troopers would prevent them. Still, the effort to rally so many representatives to stand alongside Bonnen was a strong visual match to Patrick’s press conference, when he attempted to use the whole Senate GOP caucus as leverage against both the governor and House.
And Patrick is not going out of his way to make himself beloved in Straustown. At a speech Patrick gave to a gathering of the Concerned Women for America, a Christian group, he gave a version of a spiel he’s given at at least two events recently. The gist: Finally, most of the state’s leadership are good Christians.
“I have never seen before in my eight years in the Texas Senate the presence of God in the Capitol like I’ve seen this year,” said Patrick. “Greg Abbott, myself, Comptroller Hegar, Ken Paxton, Sid Miller. I’ve participated in all their swearings-in and inauguration. And I can tell you that every one of them put God first.” They honored Jesus in all they did.
Omitted from Patrick’s list, of course, is Straus, who is Jewish. Those who follow Texas politics know the utility of these kinds of dog-whistles in talking to groups like CWA, though it might seem thin to others—the plausible deniability is precisely why they’re useful.
We’re only a month and a half through the session—this is supposed to be the easy part. And there’s already so much warm feeling! Only 90 days to go.