HOUSTON – Texas Monthly is famous for three things: long-form stories of crime and punishment unsurpassed in American journalism, a barbecue editor who is the Robert M. Parker of smoked meats, and the political commentary of Paul Burka, whose experience and influence gets him called the “dean of the Austin press corps.”
While each of the first two is sui generis, Burka is generic, a perfect representative of what Jay Rosen once called High Broderism, the mainstream approach to political journalism that claims authority by pushing off against “ideologues” on either side. Since Texas is short on commies, Burka ends up pitting Democrats, open-wallet Republicans, and “pragmatists” like himself against conservatives, whom he describes as “extremists,” “bullies,” “ideologues,” “ultra-conservatives,” or anything else that marks them as deviants.
Since the primary runoff was held Tuesday, Burka has exhausted his synonyms for “zealot.”
This is the Tea Party’s moment, the time and place that it’s actually putting people in office. The general election isn’t until November, but since Democrats haven’t won statewide office here in twenty years, the primaries are the true test. Up and down the ballot, Tea Party-favored candidates defeated the often better-funded establishment GOP candidates. The biggest winner was State Senator Dan Patrick, a social conservative and radio talk show host who crushed the incumbent lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst, by thirty points.
Burka despises Patrick and has repeatedly included him on the dark side of his biannual list of best and worst legislators (the worst are always the conservatives, salted with whichever Democrats broke the law that session). This matters because Burka is a thoroughly orthodox priest in The Church of the Savvy, so other reporters find his views safe to adopt in their own coverage. Since Patrick is synonymous with the Tea Party, his opinions and actions are going to define the movement’s image in press narratives.
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. Patrick can use that power to promote limited government, low taxes, balanced budgets, and level playing fields—the stuff the Tea Party stands for—but the press would rather talk about racist hicks. Patrick’s immigrant-bashing primary campaign has given them plenty of excuse. Burka set the pattern:
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.
The hysteria is unbecoming a savvy journalist, who ought to know that the government behemoth is never in true peril. It just puts on weight more slowly (sometimes) when Republicans are in charge. The point that’s going to stick, if Patrick allows it, is the conflation of Tea Partiers with “know-nothing” immigration opponents.
Fortunately there are a couple of reasons to think Patrick was just running hard to the right for the primaries and doesn’t really intend to become the next Jan Brewer.
One is the low turnout for primary runoffs. With just 10 percent of the state’s registered Republicans showing up Tuesday, Patrick needed to own an issue that always motivates a certain segment of the electorate. So he used some fiery rhetoric, talking about the “illegal invasion” and rapes and murders by illegal immigrants, and was rewarded when the Democratic mayor of San Antonio, Julián Castro, called him “the most anti-immigrant politician running statewide.”
The next is that Patrick didn’t commit himself to any action besides the poll-tested promise to “secure our border” that all of the Republicans made. During the primary debates, folks tried to force them to get specific, but they rarely got more than the catchphrase in response. Patrick even took out an ad to say that “illegal immigration is Washington’s responsibility,” not his. He did promise to “end sanctuary cities,” but he can go ahead and say he’s kept his word, as sanctuary cities are about as real as anchor babies.
Also, Patrick acknowledged that Texas is turning ever more Latino (35 percent and growing), but he argued that pro-life Catholics would be inclined to support Republicans. This shows he is aware of the demographic shifts that have Democrats working hard to retake the state.
Most importantly, he didn’t run anything like Pete Wilson’s infamous “They keep coming” ad from 1994, which many think is the moment that Republicans sealed their doom in California.
It’s worth noting that the Tea Party takeover of 2014 is nothing like the Republican Revolution of 1994. Anti-immigrant feeling flourishes during recessions, but the state economy is booming, continuing to outperform the national economy. Voters here aren’t suffering and angry; they’re showing a healthy indifference to politics. It’s hard to fire them up when things are going so well.
The economic momentum from the Rick Perry decade presents Patrick with his greatest opportunity. While Burka and his followers will fret about cuts, Patrick can press the case for even smaller government. 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.
The truth is that Texas isn’t as lightly regulated as folks think—but that’s just another opportunity for Patrick. In the most recent Freedom in the 50 States study by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, Texas was ranked thirtieth for regulatory freedom. There are plenty of free market reforms to be had, from ending restrictions on direct car sales to the public to absurd licensing requirements, such as the nine months of cosmetology training required of anyone who practices eyebrow threading.
Patrick’s choice is simple. He can fight for what the Tea Party says it believes, not to mention what Texans say they believe, and he can prove that it works. Or he can confirm the darkest accusations of the Tea Party’s enemies and doom the movement to the fringe.