The Next President?

Greg Abbott has fired the first shots of the 2024 Abbott for President campaign.  Texas Governor Greg Abbott is more affable than the incumbent, but that is deceptive.  Students of history will remember how Dwight Eisenhower outmaneuvered Robert Taft, and then Joe McCarthy, all behind a deceptively mild façade.  Abbott is more facile than Ike, more restrained than Trump (setting the bar low here), but as hard-edged and calculating as either. The Governor’s mostly-successful effort to ban hospitals from performing “non-essential” surgeries (read: abortions) during the COVID-19 pandemic provides an excellent example of marrying allegedly highminded notions to catering to his base.  His detailed plan for a phased re-opening of Texas is a master stroke.  It calls for most establishments to reopen at 25% capacity now, and 50% capacity after an evaluation to occur around May 18.  It also distinguishes between urban and rural counties, which makes some sense but also liberates his voters, many of whom reside outside Texas’ large cities.

But most telling, while working in apparent tandem with the Trump Administration, the Governor has presented a plan that seems comprehensive, thoughtful, and workable, and without the haphazard caterwauling that characterizes so many Trumpian initiatives.  A few weeks ago, Abbott appointed like-minded personnel to his Strike Force to Reopen Texas—Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, Attorney General Ken Paxton, Comptroller Glenn Hegar, along with media-savvy business types such as Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale and Tilman Fertitta.  Contrast that to the revolving door in President Trump’s university (I say “university” because so many of his acolytes are “schooled” by Trump and later cast aside as scapegoats). The Governor makes no such mistakes, in part because his pronouncements are limited and nuanced.  He will not be blamed if COVID-19 cases and fatalities spike after a phased re-opening of our State.   He will simply pull back on his plan.    Although he may have been unsettled by President Trump’s 24-hour turnaround on Georgia Governor Brian Kemp for attempting to follow the President’s signals to reopen his state, Abbott retains the flexibility to slow down his initiative.

Abbott believes in “federalism”—but only to the extent it favors the position he currently occupies.  Local governments have been pilloried by Governor Abbott for years, perhaps because Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio contain voting majorities well-disposed toward his political opponents.  His plan to re-open Texas also had the effect of superseding and nullifying directives from Democratic county judges in the major urban counties (who are the chief executives for those counties), including mandatory masks, thus achieving the two-fold purpose of gratifying the base and frustrating officeholders who are political opponents.

Meanwhile, Governor Abbott has touched every radical base during his tenure.  The first eyebrow-raiser occurred early in his first term when he directed the Texas State Guard to “monitor” U.S. military exercises in central Texas (the Jade Helm exercises) so that Texans would “know that their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed.”  Who else but a wingnut could think that the U.S. Army was plotting to take over Texas?   Later. when Abbott signed an open carry law, he chose Red’s Indoor Range, a popular gun store and shooting range in Pflugerville, as the site for the signing ceremony.  By turns during his gubernatorial tenure, Abbott has made overtures to the anti-vaxxers and those who oppose local ordinances limiting plastic bags.  But he’s careful about it.  The Texas Supreme Court bailed him out on the plastic bag ordinance by finding that cities did not have the authority to enact such ordinances.  When Dan Patrick advocated for a “bathroom bill” to force everyone to use a restroom corresponding to the gender of their birth, and wasted a legislative session that had serious issues such as education funding to address, Abbott stood on the sidelines waiting to see what would happen.  When the bill failed, Abbott was unsoiled.  On the other hand, the Governor expressed outrage at the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision upholding gay marriage. He actively encouraged Texas’s 254 county clerks to refuse to issue marriage license to gays if their conscience forbade it.  And this from a licensed attorney and former state judge who presumably understands the meaning of Article III of the Constitution.  

Governor Abbott’s hostility to immigrants, a key ingredient of our economy, is palpable.  (Houston is home to the renowned Texas Medical Center, where at least 25% of healthcare workers, including physicians, are foreign-born.)  A few years ago, Abbott announced that Texas would refuse to admit a pitifully small number of Syrian refugees who had managed to escape Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime and had been thoroughly vetted by the Trump Administration.  (His lawsuit against the federal government was, not surprisingly, unsuccessful).   The Catholic bishops of Texas, despite hearty approval of Abbott’s strong anti-abortion stance, nonetheless condemned his stance on refugees.

Governor Abbott’s record on voting rights is reliable. That is, reliably hostile to making it less onerous to vote by mail.  He also opposes votes by non-citizens.  (Well, who doesn’t?)  A few years ago, David Whitley, the Abbott-appointed Secretary of State and chief elections officer, sought to purge over 90,000 registered voters from the rolls — wrongly.  Many of those individuals were legitimately registered and entitled to vote and Mr. Whitley had to backtrack—and resign. The Governor’s protestations that he had nothing to do with that debacle were disproved by emails showing that he was advocating strong action to purge the rolls to the officials involved before the policy was implemented.  So he’s not just a conservative, he’s a prevaricator. 

Most disturbing, Abbott has called for a national convention of the States to write a new Constitution to remedy perceived abuses by the United States Supreme Court.   Presumably he wants to make sure that Roe v. Wade will be overturned.  But the possibilities and dangers inherent in a constitutional convention are endless.  Such a convention requires just 2/3 of the state legislatures to call for it—in other words, 34 states.  Trump carried 30 states in 2016, so it could happen.   Over the last 40 years, many state legislatures have called for constitutional amendments, ranging from anti-abortion moves to a balanced federal budget to adjusting the Electoral College.  The mind boggles at the thought of such a convention influenced by a President with Abbott’s inclinations.  Just imagine a new American regime, but instead of an Attorney General like William Barr, a President of similar ilk.

This man is a calm, unruffled, purposeful radical, whereas Trump is simply an impulsive, self-centered lout.  Abbott is smarter than Mike Pence (who actually visited the Mayo Clinic without a mask just this week).  He’s the governor of a large state and will receive outsized attention both within and without Texas.  And he will undoubtedly leave Nikki Haley in the dust.  That’s not necessarily based on Abbott’s talents, which are formidable, but an accident of birth and heritage.  The Republicans are not going to nominate a woman who was born Nimrata Randhawa, even if she has a “neighbor girl down the block” nickname, even if her husband is Methodist and served in the military, and even if she has slavishly complimented Mr. Trump over the last few months.  Better a handsome Anglo male than a sometimes-even-tempered woman from a deep red state like South Carolina.

You have been warned.  

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