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"Texans on the border are suffering through a humanitarian crisis,” Gov. Greg Abbott declared at a June 16 press conference announcing that Texas would build its own border wall. Democrats in the Legislature were surprised to learn that the budget they just passed will provide initial funds for it to the tune of $250 million, but Abbott was unapologetic about putting the border crisis front and center. Two hours before that announcement, Abbott sat down with the Washington Examiner and made clear the issue is a priority — and a challenge to President Joe Biden.
“The president has abdicated his duty, his sworn duty, to follow and apply the laws that Congress has written about immigration policies,” Abbott said. “This is more than just a ‘follow the law’ approach. Our approach is one of being empathetic and responsive to the needs of Texans on the border.”
The public challenge to the Biden administration over its first major crisis, especially in the form of building a border wall, added to the buzz over Abbott as a national figure who could run for president in 2024 from a position of strength if his policies pan out. Elected in a landslide in 2014 and again in 2018, Abbott has been tasked with steering Texas through concerns about the state’s power grid in the wake of disastrous winter outages, the COVID-19 pandemic, and, now, an escalating border crisis.
The task looms large: Texas shares a whopping 1,254 miles of border with Mexico. Immigration and border security are a double-edged sword for the former state attorney general: When the issues are under control, few notice; when they’re not, the chaos sparks national attention.
“Look at the raw numbers year over year,” he told the Washington Examiner. “Last April, when Trump was president, there were 17,000 apprehensions of people coming across the border.” In April of this year, that number was 170,000, and rising. Abbott blames the Biden administration most of all, saying its removal of the “Remain in Mexico” policy, disinterest in finishing the border wall, and failure to enforce the immigration laws that already exist created a perfect storm of lawlessness — and Texans bear the brunt.
If Abbott succeeds, his double-edged sword will turn into a boon twice over: A border wall could solve a logistical, immigration, and crime problem Texans are facing and endear him to Republicans nationally: 76% support a border wall, according to a May NPR/Ipsos survey.
The son of parents who preferred Barry Goldwater despite living in Longview, a town that embraced Lyndon Baines Johnson, Abbott professes a lifelong love of liberty. Before the former attorney became a state Supreme Court justice, he practiced constitutional law. “That’s the good stuff,” he said with a grin. He’s twice argued before the Supreme Court and pointed out he still has the white quill pens to prove it. (The quills are mementos attorneys are allowed to keep after oral arguments.)
Abbott recalled with fond nostalgia a case he argued in 2005, Van Orden v. Perry, a classic separation of church and state debacle: An atheist sued the state to rid the Texas Capitol of a Ten Commandments plaque. Abbott still remembers that the late Justice Antonin Scalia scoffed at Abbott’s answer to one of his questions. Abbott was unfazed: It was Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's vote he needed. His focus paid off. The court later ruled 5-4 that the Ten Commandments did not violate the First Amendment. “The Ten Commandments are still outside the Capitol,” Abbott said, pointing north.
The 63-year-old is still guided by a litigator’s attention to detail. According to Luis Saenz, Abbott’s chief of staff since 2017, Abbott devours statistics, research, and information, often staying until 2 a.m. to review data, catching up on sleep on the weekends. Despite the apocalyptic predictions from Democrats and the press, this was behind Abbott’s decision to pull the state out of its COVID crash position. “He’s very judicial,” Saenz said. “He does a lot of back and forth with staff and experts. He deliberates a lot. He was very thoughtful [about reopening Texas]. He processes more; it’s refreshing. There are disagreements, but he’s open to that.”
Abbott says he sought to protect lives, livelihoods, and fundamental freedoms. The decision to reopen “was just a matter of following reasonable, discernable, scientific facts,” he said. “One thing was easy to determine early on: protecting seniors who are most vulnerable. From the beginning, we never shut down about half of all business operations. Part of Texas always remained open, and as we learned more and were able to safeguard seniors more ... it eventually got to the point where we could be open except in areas where hospitals were completely overrun.”
What about conservative vaccine skeptics in Texas? Abbott is more empathetic than others. “There was a segment of Texans that were anti-vaccine long before COVID, and that’s why Texas has maybe one of the more permissive laws for people to be able to opt out of vaccines — religious conscience or other reasons,” he said. “Concerning COVID, all these vaccines are still based upon emergency use authorization, and that means they haven’t been fully approved by the FDA.” That, and the fact that COVID-acquired immunity appeared a not-insignificant factor in the drop in transmission, along with the state’s more libertarian-leaning culture on such mandates, convinced Abbott that, despite his own personal confidence in the vaccine, strict mandates were a bridge too far for many Texans.
Many GOP lawmakers wished Abbott had reopened the state even sooner, but Abbott faced a torrent of criticism from outside his party. Greg Casar, a Democratic member of the City Council in Austin, told NPR, “It seems that the governor is choosing to score political points and to try to change the subject from the fact that people here in our capital city still don’t have water from the disaster. He doesn’t want to talk about the ice storms and the failure of preparation on his part for those storms. So, he’s opening up this front in the culture war by eliminating mask mandates. He thinks it might score him political points, but I think it will cost people their lives.”
Even Joe Biden blasted the decision, calling it a “big mistake” and “Neanderthal thinking.” The derogatory comment clearly still bothers Abbott — he mentioned it during our interview and again later during the border wall press conference, with an incredulous tone.
Still, the state’s recent crises have taken a toll. A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll May 4 found that 43% of Texas voters approve of the job Abbott is doing, and 45% disapprove; among Republicans alone, his approval bumps to 77%, 10 points down from where it was in April 2020.
Abbott remains upbeat, but not in the smarm-and-swagger caricature of the Lone Star State. At 26 years old, the same year he graduated with a Juris Doctor from Vanderbilt University Law, an oak tree fell on top of him as he was jogging following a storm. Surgeons placed two steel rods in his spine, and Abbott has been bound to a wheelchair ever since, paralyzed from the waist down.
The accident explains Abbott’s quiet grit and undeterred self-confidence: He’s already faced larger personal challenges than any challenge the world of politics can throw at him and kept his head. “Gov. Abbott is a good communicator in a crisis and takes charge of developing situations, whether global pandemics, mass shootings, natural disasters, or other events,” Randan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist based in Austin, told me. "He tends to act quickly and to ensure that he is seen leading from the front in these situations, which is a strength.”
Indeed, Abbott appears as comfortable discussing the details of a Supreme Court case or COVID-19 statistics as he is the renowned reputation of Texas’s high school football rankings. Keen observers have been speculating about Abbott’s national ambitions for years. A 2014 Washington Post article predicted, a month before his gubernatorial win, “Don’t be surprised if he runs for president.”
Abbott’s methodical decision-making combined with broad popular agendas such as a border wall could be the perfect blend of both worlds for Republicans who loved Donald Trump’s policies but loathed his crass and often reactionary demeanor. Locals agree. “Abbott’s border wall allows him to score points with Donald Trump’s base, be in 2024 mix,” reads a June 21 Dallas Morning News headline.
In a March 2 article in the Texas Tribune about Abbott’s moves to reopen Texas, Patrick Svitek wrote: “Abbott thrust himself into a national GOP fervor over governors who have been on the vanguard of reopening their states, a quality that is already shaping the nascent field for the 2024 presidential race.”
Abbott and his team have remained mum on whether he retains presidential ambitions. “It seems to me that Gov. Abbott is focused on his 2022 reelection campaign, and I have not seen much evidence that he is gearing up for a presidential run. He certainly may do so, but I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion. Everyone around him says that he is 100% focused on the next campaign, and his actions seem to buttress that argument,” Steinhauser said.
Nicole Russell (@russell_nm) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog.
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Original Author: Nicole Russell
Original Location: Texas Ranger