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Spotlight Finds Abbott, and It's Not Flattering

With one letter that he says the media mischaracterized, Gov. Greg Abbott drew a national spotlight, riling up fellow Republicans, national pundits and pro-military friends. But that doesn't mean questioning Jade Helm was a mistake.

Gov. Greg Abbott at the Texas State Prayer Breakfast in Austin on May 4, 2015.

Unlike his jet-setting predecessor or firebrand protégé, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has mostly stayed out of the national spotlight. 

It found him last week nevertheless.

The new governor, who followed Rick Perry into the mansion and served as a mentor to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, became a target of widespread criticism after ordering the Texas State Guard to “monitor” the U.S. military while it conducts training exercises, known as Jade Helm 15, which some Texans fear are a prelude to Obama-imposed martial law.

Abbott’s written order struck many as an embrace of his party’s paranoid fringe, and the episode gave the Republican governor the first full-blown national controversy of his own making.

Now, critics and some nonpartisan analysts are describing his handling of the matter as an unforced blunder — just as others say he has properly assessed the antsy mood of Republican voters and provided them just what they wanted. 

“This is one of the first instances where he has been in the national spotlight in a very unfavorable way,” said Rice University political scientist Mark P. Jones. “Not only is he taking flak from every Democrat, but he’s taking quite a bit of flak from Republicans and Republican allies on this issue.”

After giving the order, Abbott was obliquely spanked by Perry, criticized by a sitting congressman for adding “fuel to the fire,” and said to be “pandering to idiots” by a former member of the Texas House of Representatives. And that’s just from the Republicans.

Comedian Jon Stewart made Abbott the butt of his late night Comedy Central jokes, telling Texans that they should ask themselves, “What would Rick Perry do?” Texas Democrats are calling for an apology to the troops, and using the alleged faux pas as a pretext to raise money.

“This comes across as pure paranoia. And it’s not what you expect from a leader,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “One would expect a rational governor to dispel irrational fears among his constituents. And he’s fanned the flames instead.”

Abbott and his aides say his remarks were misinterpreted, and characterized the media coverage as an “overreaction” to legitimate concerns about a massive military exercise planned this summer. The governor’s backers also point out that Cruz and U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, have come to his side, saying it’s natural that citizens would distrust a military exercise hatched by the Obama administration.

In several emails provided by the governor’s office, some citizens also thanked the governor for keeping a watchful eye on a potentially intrusive federal operation. The Texas Tribune agreed to use only the first names of the senders.

“I am an American citizen who had all but completely lost all faith in my government,” wrote Donald from San Angelo. “Recently, I had a change of hear when I saw the Governor’s stance and comments on operation Jade Helm. I can tell you what it means personally to feel like there are still those in office fighting for the constitution, civil liberties and rights of the average American citizen.”

Likewise, Ginny from Conroe said that whether it’s all just unfounded rumors she “felt much relief when I heard what you are doing to respond to it.” 

Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas and a pollster for the Tribune, said that while Abbott’s approach may be “seen as distasteful and pandering,” it’s not “automatically a mistake.”

“At this point, who is a more important constituency to a Republican Texas governor: the extreme right wing of the primary electorate whose suspicions of the federal government are easily stoked, or Jon Stewart and The New York Times?” Henson said.

The conspiracy theories about Jade Helm took off on social media and then boiled over at a town hall meeting on April 27 in Bastrop, where Lt. Col. Mark Lastoria tried to calm palpable fears that Jade Helm would lead to the “implementation of martial law, confiscation of weapons, fuel and food, or the bringing of enemy forces, like ISIL, to help with the training,” according to a report of the meeting that ran in the Austin American-Statesman.

Abbott released a letter a day later in which he ordered the state militia to “monitor the operation on a continual basis” so that Texans could be sure their “safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed.”

Even some Republicans saw Abbott’s order — and that last line in particular — as giving credence to wild and totally unsubstantiated fears that Barack Obama is coming for Texans’ guns and ammo, with a mysteriously named military exercise as cover to subdue an unsuspecting populace.

U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Midland, had to beat back rumors of a federal takeover when he held a town hall in sparsely populated Martin County. Some were worried that the closure of a Midland Wal-Mart might be part of a secret plot — apparently involving underground tunnels — to establish martial law in the Lone Star State. (Wal-Mart has publicly denied the conspiracy theories.) 

“The governor added fuel to the fire when he asked the Texas State Guard to look into it,” Conaway said, according to the Midland Reporter-Telegram. "In my view that’s pandering by the governor and he didn’t need to do that." 

Jones, the political analyst from Rice University, said that whatever Abbott’s original intent was, his letter amounted to a “strategic error” and the governor missed an opportunity to correct impressions formed in the first day or two as news of his order spread.

Instead, the topic has raged on for more than a week — and counting. Abbott was still doing damage control in an interview aired Friday on KXAN-TV.

“The issue becomes much less the letter itself but his response to the criticism and the ability to admit that he made an error, and the reluctance to admit that he made an error,” Jones said. “He would have been far better off doing that a day or two afterwards as opposed to letting this drag out this long.”

Disclosure: Rice University and Wal-Mart are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Greg Abbott Louie Gohmert Mike Conaway Rick Perry