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Analysis: In Texas, the Loyal Opposition is Dysfunctional

The Texas Democratic Party’s convention lands at a moment when the state’s Republicans are feverishly manufacturing topics for the opposition party to talk about. Will it matter?

The Texas Democratic Party will hold its 2014 convention in Dallas.

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As Texas Democrats prepare for their biennial state convention this week in San Antonio, many questions arise: Are they meeting out of habit, or is there a reason for this gathering? Why is the list of scheduled speakers so provincial? What are they doing to drive turnout and enthusiasm in the 20 weeks between now and Election Day?

The Texas Democratic Party’s convention lands at a moment when the state’s Republicans are feverishly manufacturing topics for the opposition party to talk about, from personal and public legal issues to social media stumbles to plain, old-fashioned operational failures in foster care and student testing programs.

The Republican Party of Texas held its convention last month in Dallas. Attendance was down. The local favorite — U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — had just packed his presidential candidacy in a Tupperware canister in the back of the fridge — hoping it would keep for four years when there will be another race for president.

Gov. Greg Abbott didn’t even say Donald Trump’s name out loud in his speech. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick did, but most other Texas Republicans stayed away.

National candidates are not their only worry. Republicans who’ve been behaving themselves might be wigging out about the escapades of some of their top statewide officials, but they’re not talking about it.

And the Democrats, who ought to be having a hoedown right now, can’t seem to find anyone with sufficient gravitas to make the opposition’s voters hesitate.

The presidential race is different from the state races because it’s competitive. National politics remains hypersensitive to slights and gaffes; Texas politics — especially in general elections — seems numb to those things.

Elsewhere, there’s a Hillary Clinton for every Trump, and the slightest error can put a national figure on the broiler. In Texas, where the partisan competition is almost imaginary, a conservative officeholder can get into all kinds of political trouble without threat from the other party.

Pushback is useful even when it falls short. Trump wasn’t exactly toppled when U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, told him to "take your border wall and shove it up your ass." But it bought people a moment to sort out their thoughts about Trump’s big fence.

That’s something. It’s what checks and balances are meant to do — to freeze things, if only for a second, for a reconsideration of whether an idea or action is really a good idea.

Talking about the troubles of confederates is so repellant to people in the civics business that they prefer ignorance over having to express their own views.

This is not a Republican malady; it’s politics.

Democratic officeholders in the 1980s were pretty damned quiet when Speaker Billy Clayton and Attorney General Jim Mattox were indicted. Both were eventually acquitted, too. Clayton won another term as speaker. Mattox won another term as the state’s top lawyer. Sometimes, these things pass.

The Texas Democratic Party’s convention lands at a moment when the state’s Republicans are feverishly manufacturing topics for the opposition party to talk about.

In that interim period between full Democratic control of Texas and the full Republican control we have now, there was an opposition party making noise at every turn. Ask Democrat Garry Mauro, who as land commissioner was accused of running Bill Clinton’s Texas campaign out of his state offices, or Kay Bailey Hutchison, who was accused of handling too much of what should have been done in her campaign through her office of state treasurer.

Mauro was never indicted. Hutchison was acquitted. But both were scorched by opponents in the other party throughout their ordeals. Mauro, whose party was waning, went on to lose a lopsided 1998 governor’s race against George W. Bush. Hutchison, whose party was waxing, won a special election and then three full terms in the U.S. Senate.

It’s not that the bellowing from their political enemies did them in — it’s that it constrained their behavior. You keep your mitts off the cookie jar when the folks are watching, but what if they’re not around?

Right now, for Republican Texas officeholders, the folks are not around.

That’s why you get the kinds of news you’ve been getting out of Austin.

State funds being used for severance pay, which isn’t supposed to even exist for state employees.

Officeholders taking personal or political trips on the taxpayers’ tab.

Elected officials using their offices to try to silence whistleblowers who complain of political pressure in state business.

Remember your governor’s recent words on Attorney General Ken Paxton — accused of violating criminal and civil securities laws — and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller — accused of using state funds for private travel: “Because I don't know the facts concerning any of the allegations against either of them, I have no basis to have concern. I think that's up to the appropriate authorities to be involved with.”

He’d rather say that he doesn’t have a clue than to have to say what he thinks about the clues he does have.

Fair enough. Paxton and Miller could come out like Clayton and Mattox. And Greg Abbott is a team player.

So where’s the other team?

Wait! We need your help.


Explore related story topics

Politics Dan Patrick Greg Abbott Ken Paxton Sid Miller Texas Democratic Party