Good morning Austin:
Late last week, in an update on the progress of Gov. Greg Abbott’s 20-item agenda as the special session entered its final days, I wrote about the governor’s “attempts to establish Texas as a kind of Shangri-La of conservative ideals and governance.”
The allusion to the mystical, mythical heaven on Earth, was intended as a playful reference to the unlikely streak of utopianism that the governor revealed in my interview with him about his special session agenda the previous Friday.
“That’s why I said … if we’re going to have a special session I’m going to make it count, and almost to a point of certainty, I can tell you that in 10 days we are going to have a Texas that I consider to be far better, more conservative, that will continue the Texas model for conservative governance.”
There’s a tincture of zealotry here in his assertion that “almost to a point of certainty” he can guarantee a special session of the Texas Legislature will, in such short order, make Texas a far better place.
While Patrick, who brags that he is the most conservative lieutenant governor in the state’s history, is commonly considered further right than Abbott, the governor has a comprehensive conservative philosophy that places him to the right of George W. Bush – who was, after all, a Bush Republican – and Rick Perry, a former Democrat who, I think, was a more improvisational political figure, adjusting to changing circumstances.
On Friday, Jim Henson and Josh Blank of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, posted a terrific piece – Slouching Toward Sine Die: A Special Session Driven by Party Politics, Not Public Demand
– that forms the basis for today’s First Reading.
In it, they write:
To modify a famous Barry Goldwater line to the current moment, it could simply be the view that extremism in the name of conservatism is no vice. Whether conservative voters are demanding it or not, it may be that the main proponents of the special session’s agenda — the Governor and Lt. Governor — seized a successful moment to build momentum for the agenda that both officials have promoted, often in the name of all Texans. They are, perhaps, fighting the good fight.
Indeed, when Barry Goldwater, in accepting the Republican nomination for president in 1964 said, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; and let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue,’ it was, at the time, a completely honest and brutally self-discrediting statement, that placed him outside the mainstream of the country he hoped to lead.
But that was then, and it is a sentiment with which, I doubt, either Gov. Abbott or Lt. Gov. Patrick would really quibble these days. It is in that context, that the governor and lieutenant governor were, with the special session, feeding the body politic’s, or at any rate the Republican base’s, seemingly insatiable appetite for ever-more conservative government.
But, what Henson and Blank found in their polling was that the conservative base was quite happy with what the Legislature did in the regular session, that, with sine die, it was left sated, patting its stomach contentedly and perhaps even emitting a small, happy burp.
That, so soon after, the governor would be laying out a sumptuous 20-course buffet in a special session that would offer an opportunity to gorge on legislation that had failed to make it through the regular session, was, they found, not a response to some aching hunger or growling stomachs.
And if some of the governor’s mid-summer banquet went unconsumed – well, gluttony is a vice not a virtue.
We’ll know by Wednesday midnight how many of the governor’s 20 agenda items will make it to his desk as bills he can sign into law.
But, Henson and Blank write:
The lowered expectations for the special session make sense if one looks at conservative and Republican attitudes toward the legislature and statewide leaders at the conclusion of the regular session of the 85th Legislature. While Governor Abbott, Lt. Governor Patrick, and the leadership of some of the state’s most vocal conservative interest groups have either suggested or implied widespread public demand for more action, polling suggests significant conservative contentment with the results of the 85th — and thus, little active demand for more legislation from the legislature at this time.
Last week, with the 30-day special session well past the halfway mark, Governor Abbott told Jonathan Tilove of the Austin American Statesman, “…that in 10 days we are going to have a Texas that I consider to be far better, more conservative, that will continue the Texas model for conservative governance.” The Governor’s comments, like much of the agenda he directed the legislature to address, echoed Lt. Governor Dan Patrick’s ongoing calls for the legislature to meet the unfulfilled demands of Texas voters.
However, conservative voters, as a group, don’t appear to show the same discontent expressed by their conservative elected officials, nor by the figureheads and spokespeople of conservative interest groups in the run up to the session. The June University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll suggested that conservative voters in the state expressed the highest levels of approval both of what the Legislature had already accomplished and of the state government leaders who presided over the often fractious session — and approval of the legislature among conservatives was stronger in 2017 than in 2015. Among Republicans who identify with the Tea Party (29 percent of Republicans overall), 75 percent expressed approval, an increase of 6 percentage points over the same time period after the previous legislative session in 2015. These attitudes were also more intense: 34 percent strongly approved, up 12 percentage points from the previous session.
Nor is the narrative of widespread conservative discontent evident in conservative views of the agenda the legislature pursued during the regular session. We compiled a list of high-profile issues engaged by the legislature for the same June poll. Tea Party identifiers expressed more support than any other group in 8 out of the 11 issues assessed. Of these eight, the legislature passed four measures in whole or in part, and appears likely to pass one or two more by the conclusion of the special session.
Whether this level of success is a glass half full or half empty, the strong enforcement measures ostensibly aimed at undocumented immigrants contained in Senate Bill 4 is far and above the most important item to be put on the agenda and delivered for conservatives of all stripes. Immigration and border security are perennially cited by large majorities of Republicans as the most important problem facing Texas in the last several years of polling. By these indications, the most ideological and committed conservative primary voters were highly approving of the work done by their elected leaders, which is not surprising since the legislative agenda reflected their preferences, and the legislature gave them much of what they wanted.
Herein lies the puzzle of the message that the legislature has somehow let down conservatives in the state, who are in turn — we are told — clamoring for them to do a better job.
While this situation seemed like something of a puzzle at the outset of the special session, the increasing evidence of chill attitudes toward what will likely be #WayFewerThan20 results reflects the reality that whatever generated this session, it wasn’t fear of a dissatisfied and mobilized conservative GOP primary electorate.
The chill attitudes of the GOP primary electorate is an arresting image. It is contrary to the popular notion of the Republican primary voters as forever hungry for more red meat.
The members of the House Freedom Caucus are not chill (well, maybe Matt Krause.) Michael Quinn Sullivan of Empower Texans is not chill. Julie McCarty of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party is not chill. There is no reason they should be. They are attempting to advance their agenda.
But it doesn’t mean that they are necessarily temperamentally in sync with the broader grassroots.
In fact, after sine die, Gov. Abbott could have immediately called the Legislature back and said, enough fooling around, pass the sunset bills and go home.
In the Capitol, it would have appeared a bold and risky showdown with Patrick, but, the UT/Texas Tribune polling suggests, it would not have alarmed the base.
But he didn’t do that.
From Henson and Blank
It’s not necessary to question the Governor and Lt. Governor’s philosophical dedication to also observe that both are likely attentive to powerful political cross currents as they navigate electoral politics in the run-up to statewide elections next year.
The transition from legislative sessions preceding non-presidential election years in which statewide officials are elected is always colored by the upcoming elections, but this transition is particularly fraught with those electoral politics. The Governor and Lt. Governor will seek re-election to their offices, making them particularly attentive to the Republican primary electorate — an engaged group of very conservative voters. This attention informs the barely subterranean maneuvering between them in their efforts to demonstrate their dedication to claiming credit for conservative legislative accomplishment, and to assigning blame for failures.
So, instead of confronting Patrick with a sunset-and-sine-die session, or conceding to Patrick, with a sunset-and-bathroom session, the governor saw Patrick and raised him 18 other items, burnishing his conservative bona fides, superseding Patrick as top dog, and, essentially providing his re-election campaign, which he launched the Friday before the session’s Tuesday start, with some forward momentum in the absence of any tangible opposition.
In his announcement, Abbott promised to keep Texas the “premier state in the greatest nation in the history of the world,” which segues neatly into his promise that the special session would make the state a “far better” place and national model of conservative governance.
From Henson and Blank:
Given this constellation of interests and positioning, Lt. Governor Patrick’s hostage-taking bid for agenda control elicited what was, in retrospect and at least in its general outline, a predictable escalation from Governor Abbott. The 20-item special session agenda, a pastiche of poll-validated mainstream items (e.g. nods toward property tax…modification) with a good dose of socially conservative niche items (abortion, bathrooms) and just a dash of baroque pet items (trees), simultaneously embraced the Lt. Governor’s distinctive conservative holy warrior agenda while displacing him from the center of the battle in the eye of the public. Battling shoulder to shoulder also allows for an inopportune shove at just the right moment. Abbott’s Facebook narrowcast solo signing of SB4 — the likely centerpiece of every Republican incumbent who needs to mount a primary campaign next year — demonstrated Abbott’s willingness and ability to make such plays despite the griping of allies and reporters. Arguments about whether this play came from weakness or strength are increasingly irrelevant.
For a campaign with nearly $41 million in the bank and no real rival in sight, the special session was an opportunity for some mid-summer maneuvers to show him large and in charge.
But, the session served another purpose as well.
From Henson and Blank:
This seemingly perpetual jockeying for standing among Texas’ most conservative voters has also been reinforced by national politics. While the Texas legislature is inherently focused on state policy and politics, the chaos surrounding the Trump administration and the Republican Congress elected in 2016 creates powerful incentives for Texas Republicans to segregate themselves, and their brand, from their national comrades. This is a complicated effort, as Trump’s approval numbers remain strong among Republican voters amidst brewing scandals and erratic behavior, while job approval of Congress remains dismal — even among Texas Republicans. Further congressional dysfunction only increases the potential value of turning resolutely inward in the face of national midterm elections that will be anything but predictable. It’s a sound hedge for Texas candidates. Given this context, the special session seems not so much about unfinished business, save the matter of sunset legislation, but instead serves the function of strengthening the distinction between the Texas GOP and the brand of their more problematic national comrades.
Right now, the only potentially dark cloud on the horizon for Texas Republicans statewide in 2018 is Trump. And the best way to avoid being done in by Trump is to prove that Texas Republicans are the real deal, a model, as Abbot would have it, of effective conservative governance.
And, the best way to avoid have to answer for Trump this summer was to be busily engaged in something else, in something special.
From Henson and Blank:
While the promotion of a conservative special session agenda fits neatly in the effort to seal off state politics from the national unpleasantness, the emerging acceptance of a relatively low bar for success, in terms of how many subjects get knocked off the Governor’s list, also reflects internal realities of state politics.
While damming in state politics to protect state Republicans from the rough national waters is by most calculations a net gain for state Republicans, politics in the state GOP are fraught with their own powerful cross-currents.
Despite the periodic declarations of shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity in the fight to further entrench “conservative governance” — most often heard from the Lt. Governor — there is plenty of subtle shoving going on between Gov. Abbott and Lt. Governor Patrick. Their mutual desire to build and maintain stature among the GOP base and conservative interest groups generates much of this conflict, though it also grows out of the constitutionally baked-in conflict between both their offices and their branches of government — the latter systematically underestimated in press coverage that both dwells on, and feeds, the personal dimensions of this conflict and tension among the big three.
Then there is House Speaker Joe Straus.
From Henson and Blank:
Speaker Straus is naturally the odd-man out, and the most likely to take more public fire from both Abbott and Patrick. The tendency of Straus to seem posed against the other two results in a variation on the same intersection of politics and institutional position that make the Governor and Lt. Governor sometimes seem like Baratheon brothers.
Straus is clearly more moderate in his political temperament and follows a model of balancing Republican interests tilted more in the direction of the party’s economic growth wing. And of course, critically, Straus’s direct constituencies are different: he answers to the voters in his district, and the members of the body that has elected and re-elected him Speaker. As such, he has less of a need to project solidarity with the statewide elected officials other than as a matter of legislative strategy and, much less urgently, party politics.
The day after the special session ends, the Freedom Caucus and its allies will set about the task of trying to see to it that Straus doesn’t return as speaker in 2019, with the argument that it was Straus who obstructed the complete fulfillment of Abbott’s (and Patrick”s) agenda, and with that, the will of the Republican electorate.
But Henson’s and Blank’s numbers suggest that much of that electorate has laid down its pitchforks for the summer.
And, while Straus may not hold their affections, to the extent that he and the House temporized and contained the Abbott and Patrick agenda, he and they may be saving the party from itself, from the excesses that Republican political hegemony allow but that ultimately could be the party’s undoing.
Because, while Straus may be out of sync with the primary base, of he Big Three, he is closest to the center of gravity of the general electorate and the most representative of Texas writ large, even if Texas writ large has no way of expressing itself. The way electoral politics stand in Texas right now, Republican statewide candidates have every reason to veer right and no real need to ever tack back center.
Reflecting on the bipartisan scene at Gov. Mark White’s funeral, Lisa Falkenberg wrote at the Houston Chronicle:
How have we reached the point in this nation where our leaders come together only in tragedy?
In Texas, at least, I know the main reason. Years of partisan gerrymandering to protect incumbents created noncompetitive voting districts that inspired a monster: an electoral system where winners are chosen by primary voters, whose ideologies lie in the fringes.
Once general election voters lost their say, pragmatism lost ground, bipartisanship became profane and centrists became an endangered species. Mainstream Republicans still in office, such as Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, are viewed by the militant wing with the kind of contempt reserved for wartime deserters.
They don’t understand that Straus’ loyalty, as speaker, isn’t to any one party. He is elected by his colleagues to speak for the House, the whole House, all 150 members who represent Texans in every corner of this vast state, with its varying landscapes and languages, issues and ideologies.
Straus is fighting the good fight, mostly by following the same principle that guided White: do the most good for the most people.
The Freedom Caucus obviously, take the opposite view.
In an interview with First Reading last week, Rep Matt Rinaldi described the House under Straus as a “legislative dictatorship.”
But the case can be made that the process in the House, which lacks the single-mindedness of Patrick’s Senate, is more intrinsically conservative.
I grew up in the waning days of the Conservative Coalition in Congress, which for a generation used its institutional power to throttle change and resist the popular will.
The Conservative Coalition was a coalition in the U.S. Congress that brought together the majority of the Northern Republicans and a conservative, mostly Southern minority of the Democrats. The coalition usually defeated the liberals of the New Deal Coalition; the Coalition largely controlled Congress from 1937 to 1963. It continued as a potent force until the 1990s when most of the conservative southern Democrats were replaced by southern Republicans. The coalition no longer exists.
In its heyday, its most important Republican leader until his death in 1963 was Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio; Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen was the key Republican in the 1960s. The chief Democrats were Senator Richard Russell, Jr. of Georgia and Congressmen Howard W. Smith of Virginia and Carl Vinson of Georgia. Dirksen and the Republicans broke with Southern Democrats and provided the bipartisan votes necessary to insure passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Between 1939 and 1963, the coalition was able to exercise virtual veto power over domestic legislation, and no major liberal legislation was passed during this entire quarter century. Harry Truman won reelection in 1948 and carried a Democratic Congress, but the only portion of his Fair Deal program that passed was cosponsored by Taft. Under Lyndon Johnson in 1963-65 liberals broke the power of the coalition by passing the Civil Rights Act, which was assisted by a newly elected liberal Congress in 1964. Congress passed the liberal Great Society programs over the opposition of the coalition. However the coalition regained strength in the 1966 election, in the face of massive rioting in the cities, and the tearing apart of the Democratic New Deal coalition over issues of black power, liberalism, student radicalism and Vietnam.
In their essay, Henson and Blank conclude that the special session will end with Abbott, Patrick and Straus all able to claim success, and no broad public clamor for more.
The relative political and institutional positions of the big three in this moment also inform the likely acceptance of something well less than the entirety of the special session call. The Governor, ensconced atop the executive branch, can claim credit for whatever successes emerge, and blame the failures on the legislative branch. Even if the dependent clauses in his statements single out the House, to the casual listener some of the criticism inevitably also falls on the Senate — and the Lt. Governor. For his part, the Lt. Governor can cast blame on the leadership of the House for disappointing him and the Governor, as well as conservatives across Texas. Both will appeal to the voters’ role in passing final judgment in next year’s Republican primaries. Speaker Straus will affirm his view that he followed the will of the body to focus on the important business of the state, and to have avoided dangerous and divisive measures — and likely do what successful Speakers have done for time immemorial: get out of the limelight as much as possible.
These matters of positioning among the Big Three will be familiar to watchers of the legislature, most of whom will have their own spin on what sometimes amounts to an Austin version of Kremlin watching. But however the particulars are parsed, in the context of widespread conservative satisfaction with legislative performance during the 85th and a lack of evidence of clamoring for more action outside the headquarters of the usual group of conservative funders, brokers, and advocates, both the origins of the special session and its tepid product are rooted more in the politics of the elite players than in public demand.