Trump Victory Could Pressure Gov. Abbott to Lay Out an Agenda
It was a decade ago that then-Gov. Rick Perry stood on the banks of the Rio Grande in his Carhartt jacket, promising in a TV commercial that “If Washington won’t protect our border, Texas will.” At that time, Texas Republicans were treating President George W. Bush as an apostate who was weak on the issue that continues to be the number one priority of the party’s primary voters.
If the Tea Party was born under President Barack Obama, it was gestated under his Republican predecessor as he pushed for immigration reform and expanded the size and scope of the federal government.
10 years later, after dozens of lawsuits and countless bills passed by the Texas Legislature to “protect the border,” stave off “amnesty,” and fight Washington in numerous other ways, Gov. Greg Abbott must navigate a political landscape where the President-elect vows to build a wall on the Texas-Mexico border, repeal the Affordable Care Act, and will have a chance to work on that ambitious agenda with a GOP-led Congress.
Is that a Washington that Texas Republicans can stand against?
In many ways, liberal Democratic leadership at the federal level has bailed out conservative Republican leadership at the state level by providing a ready-made agenda: Oppose everything coming out of Capitol Hill. That tactic has, of course, been quite effective as part of the long game in consolidating Republican power in Austin.
As the Obama Administration comes to a close, there are many Texas Capitol staffers, lobbyists, campaign professionals, journalists and others who have never operated in an environment in which nearly every issue was not colored by anti-Washington sentiment.
Just days prior to the election, Abbott was asked about his legislative priorities during a telephone town hall. Reflexively, he punted to Washington:
“If Clinton is elected, especially, what we are going to have to do as our top priority is find ways to fight back against the overreaching federal government.”
“We must protect you, your individual rights, your liberty and the freedom that we stand for here in the state of Texas. And we will not allow the federal government to run over us.”
President-elect Trump already has ideas for how to run over Texas. It will just be in ways that would offend the Texas Association of Business instead of grassroots conservative leaders. Starting trade wars and deporting the elastic portion of the workforce come to mind.
The presiding officers of both the Texas House and the Texas Senate have laid out ambitious, if divergent, agendas for the legislative session that begins in January.
House Speaker Joe Straus wants to focus on things like improving the school finance system, tackling the crisis in foster care, aiding small business development, and more. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has once again called for reforms in the property tax system, school vouchers, and has been focused like a laser on regulations for transgender access to public restrooms.
Whatever your opinion about their priorities, both Straus and Patrick have left little doubt about the direction of their respective legislative chambers.
Gov. Abbott unveils his top priority at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, where board members have spent heavily to unseat Speaker Joe Straus and his Republican leadership team.
Meantime, Abbott’s plan to “fight back against the overreaching federal government” is to ask lawmakers to call for an Article V Convention of the States aimed at rewriting the United States Constitution.
Abbott has promoted it incessantly since January when he rolled out the proposal at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, where board members spent millions trying to unseat Speaker Straus and his team during the GOP primary this year.
Prior to Trump’s victory, Abbott’s proposal already suffered from very weak support even within the Republican base. 67 percent of Texas Republicans say the Constitution has held up well and should be left alone, per a recent UT poll. Many conservative activists argue that a convention of states would open the Constitution to liberal proposals with which they disagree.
There is no doubt some who call themselves conservatives will still rail against the feds at every opportunity. But a rewrite of the Constitution should have even less support among conservatives now that an all-Republican federal government led by a leader of the Alt-Right is about to take shape.
Traditionally, governors have not officially laid out an agenda prior to their State of the State speech. But if they’ve done little to lay the groundwork prior to that, the odds of success decrease dramatically. Abbott has been mostly tight-lipped about any serious policy proposals. To his credit, however, he has vowed there will be “no more child deaths” in Child Protective Services. But even on that, he has followed the lead of Straus and Patrick.
When Abbott was Attorney General of Texas and Barack Obama was in the White House, Abbott often described his job this way: ”I go into the office, I sue the federal government and I go home.” That kind of opposition to DC has been the hallmark of his time in the Governor’s Mansion as well.
Without a President Obama or Hillary Clinton to oppose at every turn, the most significant development out of this election’s results for us in Texas could be a chance to find out what Gov. Abbott would actually like to accomplish.