Sunday, December 4

Editorial: Abbott can’t win a debate against O’Rourke — only against his caricature


If you were waiting for a knockout punch from either the Republican incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott or Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke during Friday’s debate, you were likely disappointed.

If you were at least hoping for some fireworks — a spicy exchange or uninterrupted back-and-forth on at least one of the dozen or so topics covered — then the truncated speaking times and rigid moderation probably drove you nuts.

The conventional horse-race analysis is that Abbott and O’Rourke dueled to a draw; that neither outperformed expectations enough to sway the seemingly few voters who are up for grabs.

However, if you could look beyond the game show lightning-round feel, the sterile, audience-less debate room, and the scripted talking points, the debate distilled a caricature that so often prevails in Texas politics: the tough-talking conservative versus the wimpy, out-of-touch, latte-sipping liberal.

This comical exaggeration serves Abbott perfectly. He holds all the advantages of incumbency, able to make news with the stroke of his pen.

Abbott can show

voters how tough he is on border security by raiding state coffers for billions of dollars to fund a theatrical border-policing operation. He can poke Democrat-led cities in the eye by handcuffing their ability to manage a pandemic. He can win a decades-long culture war by signing the most restrictive abortion law in the nation months before the Supreme Court even decides the fate of Roe v. Wade. He can
put a stranglehold on ERCOT
, the nonprofit that manages the state’s power grid, by vetoing candidates to run the agency and dictating its public statements to assuage any concerns of widespread blackouts during a summer heat wave. And then he can skirt accountability by rarely talking to the media,
not even to spin his debate performance as a success
.

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Abbott can do all of this while simultaneously ridiculing O’Rourke as the spawn of the far-left wing of the Democratic Party; a former punk-rocking boy wonder who deserves only to be referred to as “Beto,” an El Paso flip-flopper on the hunt for any and every assault rifle; a three-term congressman-turned-perennial candidate in search of an elected office after failed U.S. Senate and presidential runs.

Yet during Friday night’s debate, and throughout his campaign, O’Rourke has gamely countered this distorted image, painting himself as the candidate more in line with Texas’ values. And too few people realize: he’s got a point.

When Abbott touted his credentials fighting for border security, O’Rourke reminded the governor that he’s the one who actually lives on the border. He argued that firsthand experience makes him better equipped to craft an immigration strategy that both helps alleviate the burden on border towns such as El Paso and McAllen, and doesn’t use National Guard officers like toy soldiers.

When Abbott exaggerated O’Rourke’s abortion stance beyond credulity, accusing him of supporting “unlimited abortion,” even of a “fully developed child to the very last second before birth,” O’Rourke tried to correct him: “That’s not true. It’s completely a lie. I never said that and no one thinks that in the state of Texas.”

In reality, O’Rourke’s position, which favors returning to the status quo of limited legality set out in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, aligns
more closely with the views of most Texans
who don’t favor the absolute ban Abbott signed, providing no exceptions for victims of rape or incest.

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Abbott
has emphasized Plan B emergency contraception
as the option for victims to avoid pregnancy, and says the state will even foot the bill, which would certainly help many. But he refuses to account for the women and girls who may lack the ability, the freedom of movement, or the wherewithal after a traumatic assault, to access Plan B within the 48 hours it’s most likely to be effective. Options for them, according to the governor, include state-subsidized living assistance and “baby supplies.”

When Abbott tried to corner O’Rourke on his now-infamous 2019 vow to take people’s assault rifles, O’Rourke hedged but he didn’t retreat on his core belief: “the only place an AR-15 or AK-47 makes sense is on the battlefield — and it’s worth noting that
59 percent of Texans
agree with him and support a nationwide ban of semi-automatic weapons.

On gun regulation, Abbott was the one who looked out of touch. O’Rourke said he would pursue reforms that are
broadly popular among Texans
: raising the age for purchase, red flag laws and universal background checks. Abbott has thus far refused to seriously entertain such measures and continued to obfuscate Friday, even claiming that red flag laws — which allow police to petition a state court to remove firearms from a person who is determined in a court hearing to be a threat to himself or others — deny gun owners due process rights. If a hearing in a court of law before a judge isn’t due process, what is?

Contrary to Abbott’s caricature of O’Rourke, these positions don’t make the Democrat some sort of socialist Bernie Sanders acolyte. They show a level of nuance and moderation in the mold of center-left Democrats of yore.

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As far as political strategies go, it’s certainly possible Abbott’s gambit will pay off. For all of the prognosticating about Texas turning blue or purple, until a Democrat actually proves he or she can win a statewide race, Republicans rule the roost. Abbott maintains a solid polling advantage,

a formidable war chest, and appears to be adding to his margin as Election Day inches closer. Continuously feeding red meat to his base without any pretense of political moderation might even make him a front-runner to campaign for president in two years.

If that’s the result, O’Rourke will end up being remembered for his failed promise. Three-time losers don’t often garner space in the history books. He has several more weeks before early voting starts to change the narrative and prove he’s not the fire-breathing monster Abbott likes to pretend he’s running against.



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