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Analysis: A Very Public Learning Curve for Patrick

Dan Patrick had the language and stage directions for campaigning well in hand, but when he became lieutenant governor, people started listening a little more closely. Advocates for more liberal gun laws, for instance.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick with Evan Smith at TTEvents Jan. 27, 2015.

It takes a while for kids to hone their gross motor skills, much less their fine ones.

Politicians, too.

Look at Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

His campaign skills turned out to be pretty well tuned, whether you like the content of his politics or you don’t. He skipped and hopped past three experienced statewide elected officials in the Republican primary, including the incumbent lieutenant governor. And, like the other Republicans running statewide last year, he made short work of his Democratic opponent in the general election.

Running the state Senate is another matter, requiring a different set of skills. And the art of talking to senators through the public is an acquired skill Patrick has not yet mastered.

“Second Amendment rights are very important, but open carry does not reach to the level of prioritizing at this point,” he said at a public interview with The Texas Tribune a couple of weeks ago. “I don’t think the votes are there.”

Patrick would have been fine had he stopped at a show of gun rights fealty. But the “prioritizing” bit inflamed others in his party who, like Patrick, have been proponents of liberalizing the state’s gun laws.

It’s not just Dan Patrick: Open carry politics have proven troublesome for lots of people, which is pretty weird for what appeared to be a slam-dunk issue. During election season, hardly anyone openly said that it might be a bad idea to let everyone in Texas carry guns all of the time, like the people on Gunsmoke or Bonanza. Or Pulp Fiction.

Heck, even Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor, said she was for open carry. After the election she said she regretted taking that position, but nobody learned of her second thoughts until after the votes had been counted.

And on the opening day of the Legislature, some of the open carry people created obstacles for their issue that their most imaginative opponents could never have produced. They manufactured most of a gun right on site outside the Capitol, which is legal but makes some of the state troopers who guard that building a little apprehensive.

They visited lawmakers to find out who shares their positions on unconcealed handguns. The advocates themselves are split: Some want the state to allow people with permits to openly carry handguns — something like the current law for concealed handguns — and others think anyone ought to be allowed to openly carry without any training or licensing required.

Nobody has taken a vote on either, but the Legislature seems reasonably open to the idea of open carry. Or did, before some of the advocates grew too pushy, and were cocky enough to shoot video of themselves standing up to reluctant officeholders that turned into a practical demonstration of why some of those lawmakers are reluctant to see a gun on every hip.

A few days later, Patrick piped up about the lack of votes in a very conservative Texas Senate. He made himself look like an opponent of open carry — he is not — instead of a guy who doesn’t have the votes he needs to get it out of the Senate.

One way to get votes in the Legislature is to tell the public that a popular idea is stalled. It works on gun proposals, on same-sex marriage bills, on anything that has voters’ attention. They hear about the lack of support. They call, text, email, tweet and show up with signs and megaphones. The votes appear or they don’t.

The instigator — Patrick, this time — gets away without leaving a fingerprint. If the issue succeeds, so does the instigator. If not, he or she can say it was worth a try.

Instead, Patrick got slammed by people on his own side who questioned his devotion to the Second Amendment. That “prioritize” was his downfall. He probably learned something; we’ll know the next time he uses a public stage to try to whip votes in the Senate.

Gov. Greg Abbott got to watch all of this from a safe vantage point, weighing in by saying open carry will probably pass this session. “I think the votes probably are there,” he said in a radio interview last week.

It’s a popular issue, after all, and the Legislature got to watch Patrick get spanked by people he agrees with. He’ll settle into the new job. Think of it as a learning experience.

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