Texas Republicans’ Pandemic Performance Is True to Form

Dan Patrick performs for Fox News; Greg Abbott dithers; and John Cornyn defiantly refuses to log off.

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick speaks during a campaign rally in Houston.

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick speaks during a campaign rally in Houston. AP Photo/Eric Gay

On Monday evening, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick went on Fox News with Tucker Carlson and issued a call for the American economy to ramp back up in the very near-term, even if it means exposing vulnerable members of society, namely senior citizens, to the deadly coronavirus. 

“I just think there are lots of grandparents out there in this country like me … that what we all care about and what we all love more than anything are those children,” said Patrick, who turns 70 next week. 

“My message is that: Let’s get back to work,” he continued. “Let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it, and those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves, but don’t sacrifice the country. Don’t do that. Don’t ruin this great American dream,” Patrick said.

The right-wing conservative, who enjoys a publicly funded salary and health insurance, was roundly condemned for his clarion call to sacrifice the old (despite the fact that the virus has proven to be serious for people of all ages) for the sake of the stock market. But Patrick was merely saying out loud and in stark terms what conservatives, business moguls, and Wall Street financiers have been whispering from the start: There’s a point in the very-near future where the market’s animal spirits must be uncaged, death toll be damned. 

At a press conference earlier that day, President Donald Trump said that he may soon lift the federal guidance he issued just last week and urge businesses to reopen. “America will again and soon be open for business—very soon,” Trump said. “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.” He’s grown tired of the dire warnings from his public health and epidemiology experts. “If it were up to the doctors, they’d say, ‘Let’s keep it shut down, let’s shut down the entire world . . . and let’s keep it shut for a couple of years,’” Trump said. “We can’t do that.” On Tuesday, he said he hoped to have “packed churches” by Easter—less than three weeks from now.

Meanwhile, the scope of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States is only just beginning to emerge as testing slowly ramps up. The number of COVID-19 cases in New York City—currently more than 25,000—is now doubling every three days, despite shelter-at-home orders throughout the state. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo shot back at Patrick in his daily address on Tuesday: “Your mother’s not expendable and my mother’s not expendable,” he said. “We’re not going to put a dollar figure on human life.”

Although Patrick may now be the face of Texas’ coronavirus response, that’s only because the guy who is actually at the helm—Governor Greg Abbott—has, also in typical fashion, dithered and delayed. In a state of nearly 30 million people, only about 10,000 tests have been administered. More than 700 coronavirus cases have been confirmed, and that number is expected to skyrocket in the coming days and weeks. On Tuesday, Abbott urged Trump to issue a major disaster declaration for Texas, as he’s done for New York, California, and Washington state. “I have determined that [COVID-19] is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local Governments,” Abbott wrote

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Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick (left) and Governor Greg Abbott at a Capitol press conference in May 2019.  Justin Miller

Yet he’s thus far balked at calls—including from the Texas Hospital Association—to enact proactive measures, namely a statewide stay-at-home order. Much like he did amid cries to close schools, bars, and restaurants (to which he eventually caved), Abbott has embraced a hypocritical deference to local governments and left it up to them to make difficult political choices. “What we may be right for places like the large urban areas may not be right at this particular point of time for the more than 200 counties that have zero cases of COVID-19,” he said

The leaders of Texas’ five largest counties—Harris, Bexar, Travis, Dallas, and Tarrant—have now issued stay-at-home orders, as have a handful of smaller rural counties. However, the lack of uniformity has allowed other counties, such as Collin—part of the Metroplex and home to a million people—to refuse to close businesses. It’s creating the very sort of patchwork of differing local measures (such as paid sick leave) that Abbott and the rest of the Texas Republican Party have demonized for years. 

And though Republicans are bemoaning Democrats for trying to play politics with a crisis, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton took it upon himself to use the governor’s executive order for hospitals to suspend “all medically unnecessary” procedures to declare a statewide ban on abortions. (No matter that just 3 percent of abortions in Texas take place in hospitals.) The move will surely be challenged in courts, but it’s nice political theater for the base. 

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., Republican senator and Trump cheerleader John Cornyn has permanently installed his custom cowboy boots in his mouth. Late last week, in response to a reporter’s question about the president calling COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus,” Cornyn went out of his way to issue a racist and false defense: China was “to blame,” he said without hesitation, because its people “eat bats and snakes and dogs.” 

The specter of a widespread pandemic has revealed Texas’ leading Republicans as the incompetent, incorrigible reactionaries that they’ve always been. Oddly enough, Senator Ted Cruz has become the relatively rational one of the bunch. The only headlines he’s made in recent weeks have been for being a model citizen who self-quarantined after potential exposure to the coronavirus. Strange times, indeed. 

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