Patrick may decide fate of Texas, tea party

BIG WINNER: State Sen. Dan Patrick has run a low-profile campaign since his big primary win.

By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org

In a few years, if there’s any reason to look back on the 2014 election here in Texas, I think it’s likely that state Sen. Dan Patrick will be that reason.

Patrick has a chance to shape the fortunes of Texas and the tea party for years to come.

Greg Abbott may be running for the nominally more important office of governor, but it’s hard to picture him shaking anything up. He just seems genetically indisposed to taking risks.

Patrick is more of a wild card. His enemies would say he’s a chameleon and question his sincerity. That’s just the negative way of saying that he’s a capable politician. He has a knack for driving issues and for rallying people to his side, and he uses those skills to stake out some pretty conservative territory. It’s why he’s a tea party favorite.

The Texas lieutenant governor has nearly dictatorial control of the state Senate, which gives him power to set the agenda and thereby rival the governor. The question — for a Lt. Gov. Patrick and for us — is whether he’s going to use this opportunity to promote limited, constitutional government, low taxes and level playing fields — the stuff the tea party stands for — or whether he’s going to try to score points by stirring up a fight over immigration that he knows Texas is powerless to resolve.

Texas occupies a unique place at this point in the nation’s history. I know that sounds like some bland boilerplate from a stump speech, but it’s true. There are two important stories about Texas that are known nationwide, two stories that haven’t reached their ending yet.

One is that it’s the last bastion of freedom and small government in the country. As Patrick said last week, “I believe, in my heart that we are America’s last hope, Texas. As my friend Senator Donna Campbell says, ‘There’s not another Texas to move to.’ So, we have to get it right.”

The state has a solid record of economic growth while the rest of the country has been mired in recession, and Gov. Rick Perry’s business-poaching missions to other states have spread the word. While nobody knows or cares what the economies of Georgia or Wyoming might mean, Texas stands in the popular imagination for the success of low taxes and light regulation.

If Patrick capitalizes on that momentum, and presses on with tax reform (a sure thing), and challenging the state’s impoverishing culture of corporate welfare and overregulation (much less certain), he will demonstrate just how well tea party policy prescriptions can work. The media is never going to treat the tea party with anything better than derision; the movement needs this opportunity to override that mockery and make its case to the nation with the facts.

The other story is that Texas may not stay conservative for long, thanks to a wave of demographic change. Led by Perry and George W. Bush before him, the state Republican Party has done an admirable job of welcoming Latinos. Their positions on immigration may be unpopular within the party, but they’re indispensable to its future.

The hardline immigration opponents who’ve applauded Patrick’s fiery talk have little understanding of just how repellent their views are to the majority. The surest way to turn the GOP into a minority party, to turn Texas into California, is for the party to scratch this itch. (There are solutions, sure, but the charlatans would rather prattle on about amnesty.)

So why am I so optimistic about the rise of a politician best known for his hardline immigration views? For one, he’s run a pretty mellow campaign since the primary. Abbott’s noticed the change in tone, too, telling a reporter, “I have seen him tone down rhetoric like that, and I think that he has and will continue to tone down rhetoric like that and cast a vision that is inclusive of everyone in this state.”

But I also think he’s savvy enough to know there’s little to accomplish on this issue, at least at the state level. That’s why they all speak in buzzwords like amnesty and border security. And when they really need to be seen taking action, they send men with guns to stand in the desert, or go find gunboats on the Rio Grande, where they can pose wearing khakis and sunglasses. Until Congress gets serious about the issue, any future debate on immigration is going to look exactly like all the other immigration debates of the last decade, and accomplish just as much.

Patrick has way too much ego to settle for that. I mean, he wrote a book called “The Second Most Important Book You Will Ever Read,” and he meant it. He loves outsmarting the media, too.

Since winning the primary nomination, he’s nearly disappeared from the media. He’s coasting to a win, knowing the only thing that can sink him would be a gaffe — real or manufactured — that became a big story. So he shrugs off interview requests, and the complaining stories that follow, like a recent one in the Texas Observer saying his campaign is “marked by a general refusal to speak with reporters, engage with their opponents, hold press conferences, meet with newspaper editorial boards, publicly announce events in advance, or even run TV ads.”

He knows that the media would love to make him out to be some racist ogre. If you want to know how most reporters really feel about Patrick, I’d point you to this Mother Jones article, headlined, “Man Who Believes God Speaks to Us Through ‘Duck Dynasty Is About to Be Texas’ Second-in-Command.”

Reporters for the local papers could never get away with mocking him so openly, but nearly all of them view him with the same sort of condescension, the same tremulous disbelief that anyone could be so gauche as to value the lives of the unborn over a Senate tradition on filibustering.

When Patrick won the primary, Texas Monthly’s Paul Burka simply spluttered with indignation, writing:

“The big winners from the primary runoff were Dan Patrick and the Tea Party. The big loser was the state of Texas, which sailed into unknown territory. The Tea Party, collectively, is in total control of the state, and the consequences are going to be staggering. All state services are in peril, in particular, the public schools. It’s the revenge of the know-nothings.

“What will Dan Patrick be like as lieutenant governor? We know that he is aggressively anti-immigrant, so we may have to deal with Arizona-style immigration legislation, sanctuary cities laws, disinvestment in higher education, and privatization of public education.”

And that’s from a guy who thinks of himself as a pragmatist. That’s the default story the media will tell. The milder version will compare him to Pete Wilson or Jan Brewer, who provoked widespread and long-lasting resentment, while ultimately accomplishing nothing on immigration. If Patrick goes that direction, the tea party’s image will be sealed. Constitutionalism will be the new state’s rights – a crucial and once-respected principle now scorned as a pretext for racism.

But if Patrick works on the issues the tea party says it cares about, it will play right into that other story about Texas, and give it a happy ending.

Contact Jon Cassidy at jon@watchdog.org or @jpcassidy000.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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