Analysis: After the blackouts, a whiff of the 2022 elections in Texas

Maybe the latest announcement from Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller was just the sound of a political gnat hitting the windshield. If that turns out to be the case, let’s at least consider the last thought that went through the poor bug’s brain.

Miller was unveiling his response to the blackouts that knocked Texas off its feet last month. He has a legitimate hook here: Agriculture was walloped by the polar vortex, and some of that damage might have been avoided if the lights had stayed on. But Miller’s proposals go far beyond the ag department’s scope of practice: Although it came from his state office and there’s nothing overtly political about it, it’s the kind of policy paper you’d see in a campaign for a less specialized statewide office.

Like the one Gov. Greg Abbott occupies.

We are not in an election year, but the public rumpus over the biggest issues of the moment — COVID-19 and the shortcomings of the state’s electricity grid — have taken the shape of election-year arguments. They’re about fundamental government services, well or poorly administered, and about the performance of the incumbent at the top of government.

Abbott has said he’ll seek a third term as governor in 2022. Some of his supporters think he’d be a good presidential candidate, though that’s a little further down the political calendar. Miller hasn’t said what he’ll do in 2022, but it was notable when he joined Texas GOP Chair Allen West in a demonstration outside the Governor’s Mansion before last year’s elections.

They were protesting Abbott’s pandemic executive orders on masks and business closures as heavy-handed failures that were limiting Texans’ freedoms and disrupting the state’s economy. “Quite frankly, governor, your cure is worse than the disease,” Miller said at the time.

The kindest possible competitive analysis would be that Miller is punching up when he takes on the governor. (That assessment goes double for West, a one-term congressman from Florida who has never run for government office in Texas.)

Abbott has been winning statewide elections for more than two decades. He is a formidable fundraiser, which means that he’s got the kind of financial war chest that should give anyone pause, and that he’s locked up the loyalties of the kinds of monied Republicans a challenger might hope to court.

That said, Miller is doing more than carping. His latest volley doesn’t even mention other officials but is, in his words, “a set of reforms for our grid and the institutions that we entrust with its reliable and efficient operations.”

It’s full of things you’ve heard elsewhere since the cold that blew in with Valentine’s Day — winterizing the grid, increasing storage capacity, requiring regulators and their boards to live in Texas, shielding consumers from price spikes, to name a few.

And it’s directed at accountability for the electricity blackouts caused by historically bad weather. The governor is not alone in that chain of responsibility, which includes regulators, legislators, generators and other electric providers, but he’s at the top of it.

The Miller-West crowd that showed up at Abbott’s house last October was demanding that he end the business lockdowns and the mask orders. As it turned out, the demonstrators were asking for lighter restrictions right at the beginning of the biggest and deadliest coronavirus surge so far.

Abbott’s restrictions disappear this week, including his masking orders and his capacity limits on restaurants, bars, malls and other establishments that thrive when Texans come out in droves.

For Republicans like Miller and West, that might be too little, too late. For others, it reeks of October, when the last surge got its start. Or last April and May, when Abbott eased up on his rules the first time.

“He’s fighting with data. He’s fighting with science,” Fort Bend County Judge KP George told the Houston Chronicle when reacting to Abbott’s new orders. “It’s a very dangerous path we’re taking.”

“There was no reason to do this now,” George said. “If he’d waited another 30 days or until we’d had a few million vaccinated, it would have been so much better.”

As luck would have it, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a paper last week on masks, restaurant dining and COVID-19 spread.

“Mandating masks was associated with a decrease in daily COVID-19 case and death growth rates within 20 days of implementation,” they wrote. “Allowing on-premises restaurant dining was associated with an increase in daily COVID-19 case growth rates 41–100 days after implementation and an increase in daily death growth rates 61–100 days after implementation.”

That touch of science illustrates the gamble in the governor’s declaration ending his pandemic prohibitions. It’s certainly welcome news — if it’s safe to get out, to eat out, to go to games and concerts and all of that. Immunizations are here. More people are getting shots amid word that there might be enough vaccines available for all adults by late spring and early summer.

If he’s right, Abbott will have something to crow about, to show to voters as we edge toward the 2022 elections that already have the attention of the potential candidates.

If he’s wrong — if ending the restrictions this early feeds another devastating wave of COVID-19, as many health authorities have warned — he’ll have done a disservice to the state.

And the Sid Millers out there will have another case of mismanagement to talk about in 2022.

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