It is vital that Gov. Greg Abbott use his office’s command of public attention to convince his constituents that the pandemic should be taken seriously and that it requires changes in their behaviors — and even some sacrifice. And it is also urgent that he ramp up his efforts now.
According to the latest University of Texas polling data, Texas Republicans who are the governor’s primary political constituency, and most likely to be swayed by his guidance, became less concerned about the seriousness of the virus and less likely to report behaving in ways that will slow the spread of the pandemic as spring turned to summer.
The changes in public attitudes underline the urgency of Abbott defying the tone set by President Donald Trump.
Republicans who viewed the pandemic as “a minor problem” or “not a problem at all” more than tripled from 7% to 23% between a poll taken in April and this most recent one in June. The share of Republicans who consider it a “significant crisis” dropped from 48% to 29% during the same period along with concern about community spread and individual infection. These attitudinal changes were accompanied by changes in behavior likely to have a negative effect on public health: The share of Republicans who describe themselves as “living normally, coming and going as usual” almost tripled from 11% to 32% in the same period.
The governor now appears to be attempting to deliver something approaching, if not exactly, bright line clarity to Texans about mask wearing specifically and, more broadly, about the seriousness of the public health threat posed by the pandemic.
This response comes better late than never. But state officials’ slow rolling of both the seriousness of the pandemic and the necessity of all Texans sticking to the precautionary measures left too many Texans open to accepting, if not embracing, the loud and clear signals from the White House that the pandemic was not serious and that advice from public health and medical professionals shouldn’t be followed.
The error of following the president’s ways gets harder and harder to deny with each increase in the number of the sick and dead, and, less dramatically, with the spread of the denial of science and of the priority of public health infecting the attitudes of a growing share of Texas Republicans.
The governor’s reversal of the reopening strategy, however tentative in its force and speed, and of the volume and breadth of the messaging around it shows more willingness to defy Trump’s self-interested indifference. Republican elected officials in other parts of the country, such as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, are already charting a course for other, less bold Republicans. A recent, and widely noticed, quote from one of Abbott’s political advisers stating that “the president got bored” with the pandemic should be taken as a trial balloon for continuing the steps Abbott has already initiated.
Although the Republican Party of Texas spent the past few weeks preoccupied with the internal squabbles over the venue of their state convention and its conduct among a small group of activists and party officers, the party’s elected officials have much bigger problems.
For much of the past two decades, the reigning GOP has had to make very few tough decisions. The largesse of the fracking boom and the tradition of the low tax, low service political economy nurtured by previous generations of conservative, pro-business Democrats enabled a generation of GOP leaders to claim success for what was mostly baked into the structural trajectory of the state.
Now, for the first time, with Abbott at the helm, the Texas GOP has to make hard, proactive policy decisions that will have deep structural consequences in a period of multiple sustained crises.
The governor should stay the course he has recently charted, even if it requires defying the president and even if it requires doing so openly. It’s time for the governor to spend the political capital he’s accumulated over his two terms leading the state with few real political challenges, and perhaps even go in the red on that account, for the sake of the state — and for the people he expects to vote for him and for those he doesn’t.
James Henson is the director of the Texas Politics Project at The University of Texas at Austin.
Joshua Blank is the manager of polling and research of the Texas Politics Project at The University of Texas at Austin. Supporting data used in this column can be found at the Texas Politics Project website.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, San Antonio Express News and the Waco Tribune Herald.