The Austin Chronicle

Texas Republicans, Defiant as Always

By Richard Whittaker, July 5, 2015, 9:00am, Newsdesk

As America equates Independence Day with a meat hangover, consider instead freedoms, like the First Amendment: a right to free speech, but not to be heard. Over the last few weeks, it's become blindingly clear: whether you're in the press or on the Supreme Court of the United States, Texas Republican leaders are defiantly deaf to you.

Case in point: Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton are both posturing constantly over the Supreme Court of the United States' 5-4 ruling to uphold the right to marriage equality. Abbott's response was to instruct heads of state agencies to "prioritize compliance with the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, Article I of the Texas Constitution, and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act." In short, he told them, if a staffer doesn't like gay marriages, they can just use their religion as an excuse to block a Supreme Court ruling. Paxton went further down that path by issuing an opinion telling county clerks that, if they objected to same sex marriage on religious grounds, they didn't have to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Unfortunately for their efforts to install theocracy by the back door, most county clerks have ignored Paxton's opinion. At the same time, the University of Texas is offering benefits to partners of employees in all marriages, not just what the right has dubbed "traditional marriage." Meanwhile, Paxton's opinion placed him on the business end of an ethics complaint. After all, a state attorney general cannot stick such a blatant thumb in the eye of SCOTUS and expect there to be no ramifications.

Their behavior was oddly reminiscent of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick going on a bizarre rant about the Texas Monthly's best and worst legislator list. The biennial institution is part analysis, part roast, with lawmakers glad to be on either end of the spectrum. Hey, it's all good copy, and anything is better than getting harpooned with the dreaded label of furniture, right?

However, Patrick used his office stationary to pen a vitriolic missive calling it "nothing but hyperbole and cheap shots." Which, you know, is true. But it's also the whole point of the list, which is stress relief after 140 days of claustrophobia under the Dome. He called it a "poor example of journalistic standards" that focuses on the "apparent pet peeves of the writers." So, no chance that this fit of pique came because Patrick made the worst list in 2013.

Consider a third example. Recently, Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, spent a morning in high dudgeon because the Texas media didn't make the fact that she was called a Taxpayer Champion by Empower Texans into front page news.

For those of you that do not follow such tedious minutiae, Empower Texans is one of the conservative front operations/trolling machines funded by Midland oil baron Tim Dunn. Burton tweeted the un-news to Jonathon Tilove at the Austin-American Statesman and Evan Smith at the Texas Tribune. Huffily, she wrote, "Hmmm. All the reporters seem to be busy this morning. With other newsworthy stories. Hope I'm not disturbing. #mybad." Then she broke off to follow Patrick in assailing the Monthly list.

Was this really about getting the media to cover the rankings? Probably not. Everyone had the press release, it's just that most reporters really didn't care, or had bigger fish to fry (for example, actual fish fries). What's the possible upside to such a Twitter tantrum? It plays well with the radical base, and there are more of them than you'd like to know about (especially if you feel like sleeping comfortably at night).

How bad is the situation? Take the recent kerfuffle over Jade Helm, the multi-state special forces training exercise. Abbott decided to join with conspiracy theorists and deployed the Texas State Guard to keep an eye on those clearly untrustworthy U.S. troops. Nationally, it made Abbott a figure of derision. In Texas, it put him in the mainstream. In a June UT/Texas Tribune poll of likely Texas voters, 39% of respondents believed that Abbott was right to send his monitors. Only 28% said they opposed his actions.

So let's get this straight. Over a third of Texans think the U.S. military is about to invade Texas via the means of a highly publicized and publicly discussed training exercise. Texas, which already has 200,000 troops around the state at permanent facilities. Why on Earth would such an action by Abbott (which some regard as verging on treacherous) have such support? Let's dig down a little deeper in the numbers:

Percentage of respondents who believe the U.S. government would:
• Use the U.S. military to impose martial law on Texas or any other U.S. state: 65% believe likely (22% very likely, only 25% not at all likely.)
• Confiscate the firearms of U.S. residents: 62% (22% very likely, 29% not likely at all.)
• Arrest political protesters: 72% (28% very likely, 19% not at all likely)
• Violate citizens' property rights: 67% (27% very likely, 24% not at all likely)

That's an impressive strain of paranoia going on there, and it represents a very real divide in U.S. and Texas politics. The right has spent decades doubling down on States' rights, from George Wallace in Alabama to Rick Perry and his talk of secession in the 2010 primary. It's a battle Abbott understands very well, since it's been his stock-in trade for years. The man that famously said his job was to get up and sue the federal government has been part of a cavalcade of anti-fed lawsuits, including subjects as diverse as migrant employees, birth control, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and air quality standards. He even has time for such naked pandering to the tin foil hat brigade when, in 2012, he suddenly started painting election monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe as signs of the Agenda 21 incursion.

End result? Abbott, a man with no policy experience whatsoever, is now governor of Texas.

Zoom out to the national level. As the right and, increasingly, the Republican Party have become the faction of states' rights, the left has looked increasingly to the federal government to defend basic rights. The battleground is no longer the streets of Selma, but the U.S. Supreme Court. True, Republican presidents have done their best to lard the court with firebrands like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Yet this is still generally a 5-4, occasionally 6-3, court when it comes to practical and constitutional matters like the Affordable Care Act and marriage equality.

That's a reality the GOP faces from here on out. If a Democrat takes the next presidency, odds are that that person will appoint at least one new Supreme Court justice. If that's a two-term presidency, odds are that there will be enough vacancies to reset the balance of the highest court in the land for decades to come.

Of course, if the Republicans take the White House in 2016, then Ruth Bader Ginsburg's physician becomes the most important person in America.

So what's a Republican firebrand to do? Condemn SCOTUS, smear the media as out of touch, rally the paranoid right, and get re-elected. And, if the worst comes to the worst, hope that those same courts you call interventionist spend years on any suits brought against you, and decades over appeals you file.

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