Texas has really been in the national news since the Independent went on vacation. Among other things, the nation is getting to witness the intensity with which Governor Greg Abbott panders to his right wing base. National headlines about Texas have spanned a wide range, including about a new law allowing people to carry guns publicly without a permit and the Legislature passing the Republican voter suppression bills — oops, I mean voter fraud protection bills — which House Democrats blocked for over a month by fleeing to Washington D.C.
Here, however, we will concentrate on the state’s response to the COVID Delta variant and the already notorious Texas abortion bill — and at least one thing they have in common. That leads us back to Abbott’s pandering.
The Independent has been writing since Spring 2020 about how pandering to the far right wing base of the Republican Party has defined Governor Abbott’s response to the deadly pandemic. Abbott’s pandering appears to result from a combination of opportunism and fear — both related to his political future, not to the health of Texans. The Governor’s defiance of recommendations from public health authorities is clearly an opportunity for him to to appeal to far right wing elements as next year’s Republican primary approaches. At the same time Abbott is also likely scared that if he were to follow the advice of public health authorities — like mask and vaccine requirements — such a reasoned approach might rile Texas Republicans. That’s the world and state we live in.
Whatever the combination of reasons, these are no meaningless panders like in 2015 when Abbott sent the Texas National Guard to keep an eye on the US Army while the army was doing its Jade Helm military exercises in Texas. Abbott was responding to a few Texans who thought that the Jade Helm operation was a cover for President Barack Obama to declare martial law and/or round up dissidents. News alert: The Texas National Guard is unlikely to be much of a match for the US Army.
Actually that Abbott pander didn’t turn out to be so meaningless either. Michael Hayden, former Director of both the CIA and the National Security Agency, later said that the hysteria about Jade Helm was stirred up by a combination of “Russian bots and the American alt-right media.” Hayden went on, saying that Abbott’s move to deploy the Texas Guard convinced the Russians that Americans were extremely susceptible to misinformation and manipulation. This in turn, explained Hayden, convinced the Russians that they should “go big,” which led to their interference on behalf of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
So, in 2015 Abbott was willing to take on the US Army to play to the Republican base. This year it’s school kids, school boards, teachers and school administrators — along with big City governments. Before Texas kids headed back to school — and as the COVID Delta variant hammered the state — Abbott issued an executive order banning school districts as well as local governments from requiring masks. Tens of thousands of students and teachers have since caught COVID and a few teachers died. After Abbott caught COVID himself (he had been vaccinated and quickly recovered after receiving the best treatment available) the Texas Education Agency (TEA) mysteriously announced that the agency would not enforce the mask portion of Abbott’s executive order until multiple court challenges to the order were decided. Although TEA is a state agency Abbott has said nothing about that.
It appears, at least from this vantage point, that Abbott is letting indicted Attorney General Ken Paxton do the dirty enforcement work for him. Paxton has sued multiple school districts who defied Abbott’s anti-mask requirement order.
Meanwhile, Abbott has held firm in his ban on local governments requiring masks even as ICU units filled to near capacity, or to capacity. The Governor also overcame his animosity toward the federal government, long enough to let the State Department of Health Services request five refrigerated mortuary trailers from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). It seems worth noting that most of those dying are probably Republicans, to whom Abbott is pandering. That’s because people going into hospitals and dying from COVID are overwhelming unvaccinated and Republicans are unvaccinated at disproportionate rates. But, hey, Abbott’s chances are looking good in the Republican primary.
Then there’s the the Texas abortion bill which Abbott signed into law. It prohibits abortions after six weeks into a pregnancy, and basically allows vigilante enforcement through empowering citizens to sue anyone they believe aided another person in obtaining an abortion. As to how the bill relates to pandering, David Frum provided a good historical summary of that in the Atlantic. Frum is a conservative, but very pro-democracy and a Never Trumper. Frum called the Texas law, “the most restrictive abortion law since Roe v. Wade constitutionalized abortion rights in 1973.” He explained “four decades” of Republicans pandering to abortion opponents as “a lucrative, no-risk political option. They could use pro-life rhetoric to win support from socially conservative voters who disliked Republican economic policy, and pay little price for it with less socially conservative voters who counted on the courts to protect abortion rights for them.”
Frum acknowledged that it is possible that a majority of Texans will just take this in stride, but he also raised the possibility that Texas Republicans may have “miscalculated. . . Instead of narrowly failing again and again, feeding the rage of their supporters against shadowy and far-away cultural enemies, abortion restricters have finally, actually, and radically got their way. They have all but outlawed abortion in the nation’s second-largest state, and voted to subject women to an intrusive and intimate regime of supervision and control not imposed on men.”
Frum continued that the pro life panderers may be “about to feel the shock of their political lives. For the first time since the 1970s, they will have to reckon with mobilized opposition that also regards abortion as issue No. 1 in state and local politics.” He even speculated that this could take place in Texas which he noted is “a rapidly diversifying and urbanizing state.”
Perhaps, and that would certainly be a just outcome. As one who has had my optimism shattered more than once before, including in November 2020, I’m not so sure. Such an outcome would mean turning out hordes of new voters. That could happen, especially in the big cities. Yet any glance at a Texas electoral map shows red counties beginning outside all major cities and stretching for hundreds of miles in every direction — every direction that is except south to the Rio Grande Valley. In the Valley, however, Republicans are gaining strength. And, Catholicism still holds huge sway in the region. So perhaps Frum is right, but Democrats might want to resist getting into their biennial giddily optimistic mode about this scenario. A relentless statewide effort to turn out “surge voters” might help though.
On the other hand, if Abbott were to somehow succeed in getting the Republican presidential nomination the Texas abortion law will come back to haunt him big time in swing states.
Meanwhile in the Old Dominion
Well, enough about Texas. During my vacation I spent some time in my native state and area, the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. In addition to vacationing I was able to absorb a little of what it’s like in a state where Democrats are on the ascendancy. That started in 2008 when Barack Obama became the first Democrat to win the presidential election in Virginia since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. In the years after 2008 Democrats won all the statewide offices and now control both Houses of the State Assembly. They have not wasted time since they took power.
As Jennifer Rubin recently explained in her Washington Post column, “Under current Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, Virginia secured abortion rights, abolished the death penalty, liberalized absentee voting, expanded Medicaid and passed significant green energy legislation.” Expanding Medicaid, by the way, is something Greg Abbott and the Texas Legislature have blocked for more than a decade — keeping more than a million Texans from getting health insurance.
Virginia also legalized recreational use of marijuana. Don’t head up there yet though because dispensaries don’t open until 2024. Until then they’re going through a Virginia deliberative process to set things up.
My Virginia trip included a visit to Richmond to attend the funeral of a dear cousin. While that was a sad occasion I knew she would have been overjoyed about the historic step forward that had just happened in Richmond. That was the removal of the massive statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue which happened only days before we arrived. The statue had been up there since 1890. So Adela and I took the opportunity to go by and see the remaining pedestal It was all very inspiring especially given how widely Lee was revered in Virginia when I was a kid. It shows that people and societies can change and advance over time.
On the other hand, there’s still a lot of reverence for Lee remaining, but those folks are outnumbered, out-organized and out-maneuvered in today’s Virginia — which is sort of what happened to Robert E. Lee, although with a lot more casualties.
Down the Avenue was another empty pedestal, this one formerly anchoring a statue of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. Stonewall was removed before his commander Lee. Both Lee and Jackson were native Virginians. Seeing the empty obelisk brought to mind some lyrics from the 1984 Austin Lounge Lizards song, “The War Between the States:”
“We lost ol’ Stonewall Jackson,
But you’re bound to lose a few.”
That song by the way is on the Lizards’ Creatures from the Black Saloon album which is filled with brilliant writing and music. There is another verse in the song which also shows a deep understanding of the South:
“At Appomattox, General Lee
surrendered up his sword.
The fact that things looked pretty bad
could no longer be ignored.”
So long Bobby Lee. You had a long run and you didn’t deserve it.
Photo at top is of pedestal that held massive Robert E. Lee statue. Headline about Lee comes from The Band’s song, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. “Virgil quick come see. There goes Robert E. Lee.”
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