Political brains detonated last week after Texas governor Greg Abbott signed a new executive order that effectively banned vaccine mandates by any institution. The timing of the order seemed extraordinarily odd. Abbott, a Republican, has long advocated for private business rights and inoculation efficacy, especially after President Joe Biden announced a federal vaccine mandate. Abbott also didn’t comment when Texas hospitals enacted COVID shot requirements over the summer.
Why the change? Texas Democrats and Houston Chronicle columnist Erica Grieder blame Abbott’s 2022 GOP primary fight against Allen West and Don Huffines. Huffines, the populist former Dallas state senator and self-proclaimed “actual Republican,” took credit for Abbott’s new executive order as proof that he’s worried about the election next March. Abbott’s camp derided the pronouncement as nonsense and blamed the White House’s proposed regulations.
Abbott, meanwhile, cited the ongoing fight between Southwest Airlines and its pilots’ union on vaccine requirements. Southwest has said that federal contractor rules force them to do the same. The governor swore to 107.1/550 KTSA in San Antonio that he thinks those rules are unconstitutional.
“I happen to know the constitution and the law,” he said, “and I know that neither the president nor OSHA has the constitutional authority to impose such a vaccine mandate. So they are probably scrambling with some analysis to come up with knowing full well that as soon as they issue it, Texas and other people will be taking action…”
The courts will have the final call on this via judicial review. And while Abbott’s and Huffines’ statements contain a modicum of truth, they ignore another major factor: Donald Trump and his followers.
Trump recently made a foray into the bloodsport of Texas politics, including through a flurry of endorsements. Two went to Abbott — once in a statement and once during a border news conference. Yet the former president later needled the Texas governor, demanding a full audit of the 2020 presidential election.
“Texas needs you to act now,” Trump crowed in late September. “Time is running out… Your citizens don’t trust the election system, and they want your leadership on this issue, which is the number one thing they care about. It is their most important issue — one that will affect 2022 and 2024.”
Trump pooh-poohed the Texas secretary of state’s planned audit of four counties, two Republican and two Democrat, as weak and slow-walked. He instead demanded immediate gratification through state legislation. For playing along, Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick and Texas senator Paul Bettencourt received Trump’s favored label of “Patriots”. House Speaker Dade Phelan, meanwhile, was labeled a RINO and compared to US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Trump also threatened him with a primary challenge.
As for the governor, he earned a passive-aggressive rebuke from Trump along with a warning: “This will have a big impact on the upcoming 2022 and 2024 elections in Texas.” Trump’s comment implies he might switch his support for Abbott over to one of his primary foes — similar to his on-and-off-again relationship with Senator Mitt Romney.
Two days after Trump labeled Phelan a RINO, Abbott changed course with his executive order on vaccine mandates. An election audit plays well with Trump supporters but so does opposition to vaccine mandates. The executive order reduced pressure on Abbott and his allies in the Texas Legislature. The governor might yet avoid another angry letter from Trump now that the former president is focused again on Arizona.
Yet Abbott’s plans in practice are no less authoritarian than Joe Biden’s mandate in favor of vaccines. Both solidify government control over private businesses under the guise of “freedom” and “public health.” So much for personal responsibility and the Republican preference for a weaker state.
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