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Say what you will about the things Gov. Greg Abbott has been doing during this pandemic, but make note of the verb: “Doing.”
The governor has faced steady criticism since the pandemic became a statewide emergency in mid-March and the economy flopped. He was knocked at first for his reluctance to issue statewide restrictions to enforce social distancing and flatten the curve, then for blocking local governments from going beyond his state orders, for easing the restrictions so early and so quickly in early May, and for the rapid rise in case numbers, hospitalizations and positivity rates over the last several weeks.
But compare his activities with those of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has mostly occupied himself with providing partisan hot takes to political talk shows since the coronavirus fell upon the country and the state.
This week, as Abbott was trying to find the handle on the alarming escalation of the coronavirus in Texas, Patrick was going the other way in television interviews, saying the Texas numbers aren’t bad, that news organizations are picking on states with Republican governors and giving a pass to those with Democratic governors.
On Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor, warned Congress that the coronavirus is going in the “wrong direction” and that new cases “could go up to 100,000 a day” if people don’t heed advice about wearing masks and social distancing. He pointed at Texas and other states where the virus is surging.
“We’ve got to make sure that when states start to try and open again, they need to follow the guidelines that have been very carefully laid out, with regard to checkpoints,” Fauci said. “What we’ve seen in several states are different iterations of that, perhaps maybe in some, going too quickly and skipping over some of the checkpoints.”
That matches up with what Abbott told a TV interviewer last week after he reinstated his order to close bars in the state. “If I could go back and redo anything, it probably would have been to slow down the opening of bars, now seeing in the aftermath of how quickly the coronavirus spread in the bar setting,” the governor said.
Patrick was more combative in an interview with Fox News host Laura Ingraham. “Fauci said today he’s concerned about states like Texas that ‘skipped over’ certain things. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. We haven’t skipped over anything. The only thing I’m skipping over is listening to him.”
Patrick was there to bail out Shelley Luther, who runs a hair salon in Dallas, jailed for contempt of court after she thumbed her nose at Abbott’s executive order that closed nonessential businesses like hers. Patrick paid Luther’s $7,000 bail out of his political accounts. Abbott retreated, and said nobody should be fined or jailed for violating his orders. At a rally earlier this week in Austin, Luther was talking about running for office someday.
And Patrick was the guy whose early hot take on the economy and the value of people at risk from the pandemic set the tone for his later ones. “We can do two things. So you know, my message is that: Let’s get back to work. 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.”
Abbott’s been responding to the twin crises on his plate; Patrick’s been stirring the pot, at the governor’s expense.
Sure, the lieutenant governor has been in the back row at many of Abbott’s news conferences. He’s generally the one without a mask. But he’s not guiding the state’s response to the pandemic and the flagging economy — he’s just doing a running commentary, grabbing headlines while the governor does the hard work.
It’s true that the Legislature isn’t in the game right now. Lawmakers are not in session until January, and as with a hurricane or a tornado, the executives at each level of government — governor, county judge, mayor, superintendent — lead the response.
They usually do a better job of working together than they’re doing right now, though it’s not unusual for legislators to be out of the mix.
But a lieutenant governor is a constitutional amphibian, a rare creature of both the legislative and executive branches of government. He’s the governor when the governor is out of the state. And he’s one of two or three state leaders with ready access to the bully pulpit — the ability to get in front of the public on short notice and try to steer opinion.
Patrick took one swing at pandemic response, putting together a task force to make recommendations on how to spur the economy. (It was separate and apart from the governor’s own task force.) It issued a report notable for its emphasis on quickly reopening closed businesses (“It is the market that is the ultimate arbiter of how businesses can be successfully opened.”). And it said — this is a little rich in retrospect — that “state officials should continue to provide consistent, effective messaging to motivate a community effort to reopen the economy.”
They wanted more testing and the kind of contact tracing that has lately rankled civil libertarians within Patrick’s political fold, along with what are now standard imperatives: “isolating, wearing masks, avoiding people-to-people contact.”
That sounds like something Abbott might say. Or Dr. Fauci.