Can You Lead in a Pandemic Without Picking Sides? Greg Abbott Is Trying

The Texas governor hasn’t defied President Trump, like some of his fellow Republican governors have. He also hasn’t ignored public health recommendations. He’s aiming for crisis management that doesn’t rock the boat.

Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas is poised to own Texas’ response to this moment, for better or for worse.
Credit...Pool photo by Tom Fox

On Thursday, in a public service announcement filmed in his wood-paneled office, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas gestured toward his most recent executive order propped up in front of him, one that Democrats, health care professionals, and a growing number of Republicans in the state had been clamoring for. Beginning that day, he said, all Texans were required to “stay at home, except to provide essential services or do essential things, like going to the grocery store.”

Just don’t call it a stay-at-home order. “That obviously is not what we have articulated here,” Mr. Abbott stressed when first unveiling the directive on Tuesday. “This is a standard that is based on essential services and essential activities.”

As the coronavirus spreads across the United States, officials like Mr. Abbott, a Republican who was re-elected to a second term in 2018, have been forced to weigh the preventive value of wide-reaching public-health mandates against the economic cost they will inevitably wring. That debate is especially fraught in Texas, where increased calls for collective action find themselves at odds with an abiding ethos of “don’t tread on me.”

It’s a big moment for governors, who, along with having crises to manage, may see their crisis management as a springboard beyond the state capitol. In New York, Andrew Cuomo’s appointment-viewing televised briefings have sparked calls for a presidential run. Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer already sports a T-shirt emblazoned with President Trump’s coronavirus coinage for her, “That woman from Michigan.”

But unlike many governors, Mr. Abbott’s task is not so much building national political clout from scratch as maintaining the regard he already has. And in Texas, competing passions for how to approach the virus — of which there are currently 5,330 confirmed cases and 90 deaths — are high. So Mr. Abbott, rather than drive a stake down, has focused his energies where he often does: placating all sides.

It’s a reasonable instinct in a state like Texas. The blue wave that defined the 2018 midterm elections crashed here, too, with a surge of Democratic voters and disaffected suburban Republicans flipping decades-long G.O.P. congressional districts, and shrinking the party’s state House majority to a meager (for Texas) 18 seats.

Keen political observers would not have been shocked by the state trending purple, and Mr. Abbott, who won re-election that year with 55 percent of the vote, the most of any Republican on the ballot, is nothing if not keenly political. Beginning as Texas’ attorney general in 2002, Mr. Abbott has mastered the art of governing from the middle, or at least appearing to: For much of his tenure as governor, he has deftly managed to slough off controversy, reaping the political capital of his administration’s more popular decisions and dodging the backlash to its less savory ones.

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Credit...Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman, via Associated Press

But Mr. Abbott is poised to own Texas’ response to this moment, for better or for worse. And the quiet, chameleonic nature that has helped propel his political career in the past may now be its chief impediment not just to leading Texans through this crisis, but also reaching the national stage that Republicans in the state believe Mr. Abbott wants.

“Abbott needed to provide a straightforward call to action that could be easily communicated to millions of Texans,” the editorial board of The Austin American-Statesman argued following Mr. Abbott’s executive order on Tuesday. “Instead,” they wrote, “he danced around with semantics.”

If Texans have struggled to pin down Mr. Abbott’s view on the virus, their lieutenant governor has left no uncertainty about his own. Indeed, Americans who regularly tune into Fox News often know where Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick stands on any given issue, and the coronavirus has been no exception. On March 24, Mr. Patrick joined Tucker Carlson’s show to stress the need for Americans to “get back to work” and “back to living” or risk economic collapse. He said that grandparents like him were willing to risk “survival” in order to maintain a strong American economy for their children and grandchildren.

In the past, Mr. Patrick’s brash style has proved useful to Mr. Abbott, allowing the lieutenant governor to become the face of polarizing issues even when Mr. Abbott, the temperamental inverse of Mr. Patrick, might support them himself. Ask Texans about the so-called bathroom bill of 2017, legislation that would have restricted the restrooms that transgender people could use, and they’ll remember Mr. Patrick as its champion, the guy who held news conferences and promoted it on cable news. Less memorable in those scenes is Mr. Abbott, who despite taking great care to telegraph his reluctance, and never meaningfully opining one way or the other, ultimately agreed to call a special session to consider the bill.

Today, however, rather than offering political cover, Mr. Patrick’s strong positions serve mostly to highlight the governor’s strained pursuit of middle ground. It is not that Mr. Abbott has been absent. Many of his decisions have elicited bipartisan praise, including asking health insurers to waive costs of coronavirus testing and telemedicine visits, requesting the expansion of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to drive-through restaurants, and increasing hospital capacity.

But before Tuesday, in tossing critical decisions like stay-at-home orders to the local level, Mr. Abbott left county officials to scramble for guidance on how to slow the virus’s spread when strict social-distancing policies were in place in, say, Dallas County, but people were allowed to move freely in Collin County next door. The result, critics say, has been a muddled vision for how Texans should confront this crisis precisely when clarity is most needed.

“Trump’s biggest failing has been in sending mixed messages from the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic,” said Mustafa Tameez, a Democratic strategist based in Houston. Abbott, he argued, has done the same. “At least with Dan Patrick you know where he stands.”

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Credit...Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman, via Associated Press

When asked if he regretted not issuing Tuesday’s order earlier, Mr. Abbott did not directly answer the question but instead explained that all of his decisions were the product of close consultation with officials like Vice President Mike Pence and the White House’s coronavirus task force. “All of my decisions have not just been haphazard, but instead have been based upon both data and doctors, and they will continue to be based upon data and doctors,” Mr. Abbott said.

Still, for many Texas Democrats and some Republicans, the time it took for Mr. Abbott to announce a statewide stay-at-home directive has become a key metric by which to judge his leadership in this moment.

Representative Lyle Larson was among the state House Republicans urging a stay-at-home order and “statewide uniformity” more broadly. In an email, he noted that Mr. Abbott and the Texas Department of Emergency Management were “working tirelessly to increase hospital capacity,” but that because of the delays in the processing and reporting of test results — as many as 10 days in some areas — “we are literally ‘flying blind’ on modeling the spread of the disease in our state.”

“This is not a shark attack,” Mr. Larson said. “It is trillions of germs that we can control if we follow the preventive guidelines.”

Some Republicans defended Mr. Abbott’s bottom-up approach as the only viable one in a place like Texas, where driving from one county to another in this state of 28 million can feel like traversing two entirely different worlds.

“He doesn’t want to overreact,” said Austin-based G.O.P. strategist Matt Mackowiak, pointing to Gov. Larry Hogan, who on Monday issued a stay-at-home directive with narrowly-defined exceptions for Maryland, as an example of someone taking an “over the top” approach. Conversely, Mr. Abbott’s measures “make sense, and don’t needlessly infringe on liberties.”

Mr. Mackowiak and others said that Mr. Abbott’s less “aggressive” and “proactive” approach is not indicative of timidity, but instead the deliberative bearing that makes him qualified to lead in times of uncertainty.“He has always made sure we’re kept in our place and not crossing the line,” said Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management, who has worked alongside Mr. Abbott in multiple major emergencies.

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Credit...Eric Gay/Associated Press

But former San Antonio mayor and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro argued that states are either in “safe mode or unsafe mode” as the virus spreads, and that Mr. Abbott, rather than governing on that binary, still seemed focused on finding a political sweet spot. “He’s trying not to lose favor with his base,” Mr. Castro said, adding that, at the same time, the governor was trying to acknowledge the range of expert opinion on how best to stop the spread of the virus.

“The problem is in a situation like this, you can’t have it both ways,” Mr. Castro added. “You can either act decisively, or you can leave your state unsafe. And right now he’s chosen to leave Texas unsafe.”

Mr. Abbott has an incentive to keep the feather-ruffling to a minimum: He’s getting plenty of affirmation from the president. Mr. Trump has favorably name-checked the Texas governor several times in White House briefings, and on March 22, when a reporter asked his thoughts on the lack of a statewide stay-at-home order in Texas, the president said he had “total confidence” in Mr. Abbott. “That’s a great governor,” Mr. Trump said. “He knows what he’s doing.”

Mr. Abbott’s close relationship with the president would seem a valuable commodity in this moment, as Mr. Trump hasn’t been shy about publicly condemning governors who have criticized his leadership. Governors in those states Mr. Trump is fond of, such as Ron DeSantis in Florida, have seen a speedy turnaround in their requests for masks, respirators and other equipment.

Whether Mr. Abbott has enjoyed the same level of cooperation is less clear. The president was swift to approve Mr. Abbott’s request to issue a major disaster declaration for Texas statewide, the first since 1901. But the state continues to struggle with a dearth of test kits and adequate lab analysis capabilities.

“We’re working well with our federal partners every single day to get as many test kits as possible,” said John Wittman, a spokesman for Mr. Abbott.

Mr. Abbott attained popularity in Texas by trying to appeal broadly, despite the disparate politics of his state, but some wish that instinct could be put on hold in the midst of a crisis. “It does seem that Governor Abbott wants to be liked,” said State Representative Donna Howard, a Democrat and a critical-care nurse by training.

She said she was “very pleased” by the substance of his most recent directive, but was disappointed that he didn’t directly call it a stay-at-home order. That, she said, “speaks to that inability to step up and say what needs to be said.”

Asked how he wanted Texans to remember his leadership in this moment, Mr. Abbott said he didn’t want it to be top of mind. “I want Texans to be thinking about their families and futures and the way they’re rebuilding their lives,” he said. “Texans are the object here.”