Thomas Jefferson once asked if man had “found angels in the form of kings to govern him.” You wouldn’t know the question was rhetorical if you went by the mournful stories in the Texas media Wednesday about Joe Straus, the Republican speaker of the state House, announcing he won’t run for reelection.
“This is a sad day for TX,” tweeted Wendy Davis, the Democratic ex-gubernatorial candidate and abortion enthusiast. Straus “is the definition of public servant – always people above party.”
Lisa Falkenberg, the Pulitzer-winning columnist for the Houston Chronicle, felt the same.
“Everyone with a brain and a heart in Texas just let out a collective shiiii…”
Anyone with a conscience, or an affinity for principle, might feel very different. Straus is no angel or statesman. He is a vindictive political lowlife unashamed to abuse his power. When a member of the board of the University of Texas began asking questions that would eventually uncover a massive admissions corruption scandal that led straight to Straus’s door, Straus’s response wasn’t to mend his ways, to let go of a secret perk he had arrogated to himself. It was to have that board member impeached, and when that failed, to pursue his indictment, even offering to make the criminal case go away if the board member would only shut up and resign.
That was always his method. He didn’t argue ideas. He used the levers of power to try and destroy his critics. Everyone in his orbit has been tarnished and corrupted by the association. Good riddance, and may his soulless acolytes in the House gain an intense desire to spend some more time with their families.
The fact that the media and the Democrats are so fond of Straus tells you plenty about his politics. And, actually, I have no beef with moderates. But Straus is not, in the first consideration, a moderate. He is a crony and a RINO. If that sort of talk gets your eyes rolling, good. It should. The Republican leadership in Congress deserves neither term of abuse, despite certain tendencies — it’s merely fixated, as ever, on electoral calculation. Straus makes you wish the term hadn’t been worn out already. I mean he is so opposed to the conservative agenda that the smart money is on him running for governor or lieutenant governor — as a Democrat. (He is reportedly sitting on a $10 million war chest.) It was the Democrats, after all, who were the foot soldiers in his coup for the speakership 10 years ago.
The question is how did Texas allow its conservative priorities to be thwarted by this man for a decade? Is there any chance now for the reforms he opposed, from school choice to property tax cuts, pension reform, ethics reform, and free speech legislation? And, if we’re being serious, how is the GOP going to avoid the electoral and economic consequences of its worst impulses, now that this sin-eater is departing? My guess is that it won’t, and that the GOP’s nightmare scenario of losing Texas may well come to pass within 20 years.
The narrative that’s forming in the press is that there’s no room for grown-ups in the party of Trump. This is off. Austin is not Washington, Straus is no voice of conscience, and Trump has little to do with local developments. But the popular misconception about special interests controlling Washington is actually the truth about Austin. Congress is unresponsive to voters because it is consumed by its dealings with a vast number of interests who are themselves in conflict; the statehouse here actually is run by a small lobby, and has been for decades. Straus is that lobby’s figurehead. He served their interests, and those of the Democrats that elected him, and made himself a fierce enemy of anyone who dared to hold him accountable. In particular, he turned a public agency meant to enforce campaign finance law into an attack dog that only bit his conservative critics.
Now, the reason Republicans usually start calling each other RINO is that they forget where they come from. The modern Republican Party (until recently, at least) comprised two broad camps: Burkeans and Lockeans, or classical liberals. The former trust in tradition, authority, experience, and practical wisdom and mistrust utopian schemes and far-reaching notions of individual rights based in theory. The latter trust in universal principles derived by reason, appropriate for all men, and establishing a broad domain of personal sovereignty and liberty. The weakness of the first philosophy is that it tolerates tyranny, majoritarian or otherwise. The weakness of the second is that it ignores man’s corrupt and fractious nature. The classical liberals look at Burkeans defending an oppressive Leviathan and question what it is they’re trying to conserve. The traditionalists see some of their counterparts embracing or shrugging at open borders, gay marriage, abortion, and so on, and ask the same question. This is why Republicans are most coherent when they are defending individual rights established by Constitutional text and long tradition. And it’s also why we yell RINO so much.
Usually, though, we’re yelling RINO from one camp toward the other: the liberty wing blasting the statists and crony capitalist sellouts, the traditionalists blasting the liberals for their social apostasy. And both are wrong, as both have rightful claims to the name Republican (a claim now being challenged by Trumpism, which represents a different sort of claim, one that precedes philosophy). But if there is any proper or useful definition of a RINO, I’d say that it’s somebody who represents neither camp, somebody like Straus. Straus, who blocked a so-called bathroom bill this summer and almost always opposes tax cuts, is no social or economic conservative. But he’s also hostile to personal rights, particularly the First Amendment right to political speech and Second Amendment gun rights. And, of course, he actively subverts due process for his enemies. It’s that very disregard for the First Amendment that allowed him to persecute his critics under campaign-finance laws. That’s not moderation, it’s cynicism. You could call him a moderate of the center-left, but he’s not a Republican in any real sense of the word.
The reason he was able to keep control of the party for so long was that the Texas Republicans do not caucus to select their candidate for speaker. They throw the vote open to all 150 members, which made it easy for the Democrats to seize control with a handful of Republican turncoats a decade ago. Even as Republicans gained a near-supermajority, Straus only need a solid quarter of his party in order to discourage any insurrection by the others, insurrections that he punished severely.
This year, Republicans finally gained the courage to start insisting on a caucus. Indeed, this plus the fact that he had a challenger this year not from the far right, but from the middle of his own party, may have convinced Straus to step aside. Some of his allies from the lobby-controlled left wing of the party have already declared their intentions. And if the party doesn’t lock down a caucus mechanism, it’s still possible that the crony RINOs will win again, with the support of the Democrats.
I’m almost more concerned, however, by what will happen if conservatives finally gain control. There’s hardly a serious voice anywhere on the economic issues imperiling the state — pension debt, out-of-control local debt, and the Trump administration’s threat to undo the North American Free Trade Agreement. It’s that debt that’s driving the property taxes Republicans make a show of complaining about. And the least-mentioned fact in Texas politics is that the state’s economic miracle began the day NAFTA was signed.
The long-term picture is even worse. Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have both decided that banging the drum on illegal immigration is the key to their futures. The future of Texas is another matter. Last I looked, Texas schools are 50 percent Latino and only one-third Anglo. Merits of the immigration policy debate aside, that is what the future looks like in Texas. Republicans are still chasing the short-term gains for their own careers at the expense of building a sustainable future for their party.
If they were any stupider, they’d be Democrats, trying to appeal to bourgeois white people by going all in on a philosophy that blames the evils of the world on bourgeois white people.