TEXAS VIEW: What would Abbott do with another term?

THE POINT: We can only dream.

Turns out, Gov. Greg Abbott didn’t have much to worry about. Running against a couple of challengers who occupy the Pluto region of the Republican solar system, all he had to do was peel off a few bills from his $60 million campaign cache and slip into his petty ideologue super suit and voila! Victory.

The governor’s prospects for victory in the general election are strong as well, in part because 800,000 more Republicans voted in the primary than Democrats. That’s a wider chasm than in 2018, the last midterm primary in Texas. Primary turnout is not always a portent for November, but a turnout gap nearly the size of Fort Worth is an instructive starting point.

The governor will paint his opponent, the slightly faded Democratic darling Beto O’Rourke, as a starry-eyed woke socialist — maybe even a communist — who as governor, God forbid, would be knocking on your door late at night ready to confiscate your guns (and maybe your butter knives) while an aide forces your kid to sit on the couch and listen to a dramatic reading of “The 1619 Project.” And that’s fine; campaign hyperbole is a venerable American tradition. O’Rourke himself is warming up by accusing Abbott of “incompetence, corruption and cruelty.”

Sometimes, we wonder what an O’Rourke governorship would look like. Would things like education, health care and true property tax reform get more attention than politically expedient wedge issues? There’s a chance we’ll get to find out.

More likely, though, Abbott will be re-elected, and that also makes us wonder what he’d do with a third term. More of the same, bullying transgender kids with threats to separate them from their parents and sending Texas national guard members to live in squalid conditions away from their families to perform political theater on the border? Punching down and appealing to our worst instincts?

We think we know the answer, in part because Abbott is said to have his eyes on the presidency, but allow us to pretend we don’t. Allow us to fantasize that somehow, a new Gov. Abbott would emerge to be a leader for all Texans, one who inspired us, encouraged this state to live up to its potential and urged us to plan for a future of opportunity and prosperity, for more than a few.

Bob Eckhardt, a Houston state representative and congressman in the mid-20th century, is credited with coining a well-known description of the graceful and imposing Capitol where Abbott has officed for the past seven years: “It was built for giants and inhabited by pygmies.”

Occasionally, a governor has distinguished him- or herself, usually on a particular issue — Dan Moody overhauling the state highway system, John Connally as “the education governor,” Mark White taking on the Texas sports establishment with “no pass, no play” — but over the years it’s been easier to acquiesce to the special interests, easier to cater to the powers-that-be instead of challenging them.

Abbott has an opportunity to break the mold of mediocrity that often characterizes the office he holds.

Abbott is a conservative Republican. We get that. The classic conservative is guarded when it comes to change, suspicious when it comes to government programs and, at least until recently in Texas, biased toward local control. Those are honorable beliefs that nurture a democracy, and are needed to balance progressive, big-government tendencies elsewhere on the political spectrum, but conservative doesn’t have to be antigovernment. It doesn’t mean Abbott can’t utilize government to make wise, even prescient, investments in the future.

This big, wealthy state, boasting an economy larger than both Canada and Australia, doesn’t have to tolerate 20% of our fellow Texans lacking health insurance. We don’t have to be 50th in the number of insured low-income children. We’re bigger than that.

We’re in that shameful insurance slough in large part because the Legislature has refused to expand access to Medicaid to those earning up to 138% of the federal poverty line, an option extended by the Affordable Care Act. Other GOP governors have signed on. Abbott could too, if he were a statesman who occasionally factored the public good into his political calculations.

Yes, people and companies are moving to this state, most of them to some of the most dynamic urban areas in the nation — the same ones Abbott has used as a whipping boy, although without Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Dallas-Fort Worth and other Texas cities, we likely would be neck-and-neck in the prosperity ratings with Mississippi.

Newcomers may be drawn to Texas because of low taxes and minimal regulation. But once they get here, they’ll expect good schools, up-to-date transportation systems, affordable housing, the best health care and other basics of modern life in the developed world. Those require planning and investment by leaders who are looking to make an impact beyond the next election cycle.

As Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research put it recently, Houston — and Texas — needs “substantial investments in its physical and human infrastructure in order to ensure continued prosperity.” In other words, we have to think bigger than adding yet another highway lane and importing our workforce from other states because we don’t care enough to grow our own.

A farsighted governor, conservative or otherwise, would tackle growing disparities in “income, opportunity and basic needs” (to quote the Kinder Institute). He would refuse to be distracted by disputatious culture issues and get this state ready for inexorable and dramatic climate change. A governor with an eye trained on the future — the state’s future, not his own — would be doing so much more to protect our ravaged environment. He’d be eager to work with Washington and Mexico City, as well as border communities to help build an immigration and customs infrastructure that works smoothly and with fairness to all.

Call us dreamers to even hope for these things. But the fact is, someday, Gov. Abbott’s portrait will join those of his predecessors in concentric circles climbing toward the top of the Capitol dome. We can imagine a father with his little girl pointing to the portrait and summing up the governor’s legacy. Will he say: “Abbott was a governor who left Texas better than he found it.”

Or something else: “Abbott was the governor who made it easier for Texans to shoot themselves. He’s the guy who made it harder to vote.”

Texas is bigger than that. And sometimes we wonder: what if the governor was, too?

Houston Chronicle