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Analysis: Chasing the News Headlines, for Better and for Worse

Greg Abbott and two dozen other governors have latched onto the headlines — and a fair amount of public support — with their words against resettling Syrian refugees in Texas. It's a popular position — for now.

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks with reporters after voting early in the constitutional amendment election Wednesday at the Travis County Courthouse.

Some of the geezers in the Capitol press corps can remember a particular Houston lawmaker — a smart legislator with a contrarian political streak — who had a weakness for filing legislation whenever he saw a big headline go by.

He wasn’t notable because he was chasing headlines and trying to share whatever limelight they attracted by filing related legislation. He was notable because he was so shameless about it.

Yes, he was from Houston. No, he was not a judge who became governor.

But you might notice a certain similarity in the behavior.

Greg Abbott just can’t let big stories go by without latching onto them — sometimes of his own accord, sometimes prompted by the actions of others or questions from the news media.

The latest, his initial response to the terrorist attacks in Paris, was perfectly pitched, deploring the violence, noting Texas police were monitoring things here and offering respectful condolences and humanitarian assistance to the people of France through their consulate here. He later called on Texans to join the nations of the European Union in a minute of silence.

This week, he and 26 other governors (the latest count) said they would refuse to allow Syrian refugees into their states for fear that terrorists might be among them.

How you react to Abbott’s reactions depends on whether you agree with him — and on whether you continue to agree with him later. Lots of the governor’s admirers point to his work on border security, simultaneously demanding that the federal government do more while also pushing for more state resources — $800 million or so in the current budget — to fill in the gaps.

Sometimes, he gets his fingers burned, as was the case when he enthusiastically latched on to the nutty Jade Helm conspiracy, sending state militia to Bastrop to help keep watch on federal troops conducting a routine exercise. That helped him lock down the black helicopter slice of the Texas electorate, but it made others in the GOP wonder what he was thinking.

And sometimes — we’re in the middle of one — you cannot immediately tell whether the governor has made a shrewd political move or a mutton-headed one.

The proclamations did have a sheep-like aspect, what with a herd of governors — most but not all of them Republican — lining up in opposition to resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states.

They were listening to some of their constituents. One of the Paris terrorists reportedly came into France hidden among refugees fleeing the terror in their homeland. Abbott and the others reacted — if a little more quickly this time — the way Texas reacted to the discovery of the Ebola virus in Dallas in 2014 or to the Blue Bell listeria outbreak this year.

But refugees aren’t ice cream. The overwhelming majority of these people are running from the same terrorists the French are trying to find and many Americans are afraid to admit.

Abbott and the other governors responded the way a lot of their voters wanted them to respond — with no discernment between good Syrians and bad ones, good Muslims and cultists. Theirs is clearly a politically popular move right now. Abbott was immediately joined by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus, and later by the House Republican Caucus and a number of individual lawmakers. The hanging question is how this currently popular reaction ages.

Will they end up looking like prescient guardians who kept terrible things from happening, or will they look like the Americans who turned away Jewish refugees at the beginning of World War II and who put Japanese-Americans into prison camps because they looked like the enemy?

Manias are dangerous things, politically speaking. One day, you’re changing the name of your favorite food to Freedom Fries; the next, you’re referring to France as the country’s oldest ally and dear friend.

The late Bob Bullock, a lieutenant governor and a state comptroller, started his career in state politics in the 1950s. One of the things he voted against while in the Texas House was a civil rights bill, which seemed like the thing to do if you were a Democrat from Hillsboro in 1957. It didn’t prevent him from having a long career as an officeholder, but he wasn’t proud of it and he spent a lot of time trying to atone.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. And then, it didn’t.

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