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Have a look at what the top attorneys for the state of Texas were offering on the day Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn in as president and vice president.
“My statement on Inauguration Day,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton tweeted from his agency’s official account. “Congrats, President Biden. On Inauguration Day, I wish our country the best. I promise my fellow Texans and Americans that I will fight against the many unconstitutional and illegal actions that the new administration will take, challenge federal overreach that infringes on Texans’ rights, and serve as a major check against the administration’s lawlessness. Texas First! Law & Order always!”
One of his deputy attorneys general, Aaron Reitz, retweeted that with his own topspin on the new chief executive of the United States: “Excited for the fight ahead. We will fight Joe Biden and the Democrats at every turn, because virtually everything they do is unconstitutional, illegal, bad for Texas, and bad for America.”
Warms your little red, white and blue heart, doesn’t it?
While the Republican attorney general and his deputies were suiting up for fights that haven’t had time to start and tagging the newly seated Democrats as lawless before those Democrats have actually done anything, the new president was calling for unity.
“The answer is not to turn inward, to retreat into competing factions, distrusting those who don’t look like you or worship the way you do or don’t get their news from the same sources you do,” Biden said. “We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural vs. urban, conservative vs. liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts. If we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes, as my mom would say, just for a moment, stand in their shoes.”
Unity was the theme of Biden’s inaugural address. “Politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path,” he said. “Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.”
It’s like trying to reason with a cloud of hungry mosquitoes. To be more charitable about it, calming the partisans is going to require a lot of political rehab.
And to be fair, a number of elected Texas Republicans said they’d like to try working together. At least on the first day, people like U.S. Reps. Van Taylor of Plano and Beth Van Duyne of Irving unclenched their fists and offered to pitch in.
Paxton’s contrarian streak isn’t new; he was one of the speakers at the Trump rally in Washington two weeks ago that spawned the invasion of the U.S. Capitol. And he’s not speaking outside the tradition of his state office. His predecessor, Gov. Greg Abbott, served as AG during the Obama administration. Abbott turned his resistance into a campaign line: “My job's pretty simple. I go into the office, I sue the federal government, and then I go home.”
It sounds like a state-federal beef, but this isn’t about federalism and states’ rights — it’s about Republicans vs. Democrats.
While Biden is trying to de-escalate — and he’s not alone here; there are Republicans working on the same project — the public will have to weigh in before the conversation will change.
The partisans are putting on these shows for the rest of us, for voters who have been so anxious and excitable about politics in recent years — and particularly during the presidency of Donald Trump. His skill at holding the crowd’s attention and driving the public’s emotion provided a lesson for the lesser lights in politics and government.
Trump has helicoptered away, but his devotees in public office are still following the playbook, confident that the same crowds who followed him will now turn and follow them.
It’s the voters themselves who are being tested. Do they yearn for more of the kind of political tension they’ve been getting for the last four years — and honestly, for a good long time before that — or do they want something to happen after all the bickering?
More of the same, or something different?
Texans in office at all levels of government do a lot of the things that they do for an audience of voters. They are remarkably sensitive to public sentiment, and here’s the thing about that: If they perform in a particular way, that’s their read on what the public wants. What you see from them is what they think you want.
Maybe that means Texans want to hobble the new federal administration with lawsuits. Maybe they want everybody in public office to settle down for a little while. Maybe voters are still split; this unity thing is hard.