Last week, Governor Abbott quietly issued two little-noticed declarations renewing his emergency powers in two key policy areas – the COVID-19 pandemic and border security. The renewal of the emergency declaration related to the pandemic, at first blush, seems out of sync with Abbott’s evident reluctance to treat COVID-19 as either a public health emergency or a disaster, as indicated by both his public declarations and his policy response – and with the waning of COVID cases and relaxation of public health interventions (like masking requirements) meant to combat the spread of the virus. Renewing the declaration that “the surge of individuals unlawfully crossing the Texas-Mexico border posed an ongoing and imminent threat of disaster” is unsurprising given the well-documented views of Texas Republicans and the governor’s corresponding high-profile efforts to meet the market.
However different the policy problems targeted by the declarations and their respective contexts, Abbott’s declarations reflect two consistent characteristics of his approach to being governor: sustained efforts to strengthen the position of the governor’s office in the state’s political system (especially vis-a-vis the legislature and other statewide elected officials), and a habit of strategic caution at the intersection of politics and governance.
The declaration that “the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) poses an imminent threat of disaster for all counties in the State of Texas” comes as the state experiences the lowest number of new cases since the beginning of the pandemic. National guidelines for preventive measures, and in turn, the efforts of most localities still engaged in preventing the spread, continue being relaxed if not rescinded.
Texans too, are beginning to relax, with 41% of voters in February 2022 University of Texas/Texas Politics Project polling saying that they are living their lives normally in response to the pandemic, up from 24% in February 2021, and only 17% seriously curtailing their behavior compared to 34% one year ago. The share of voters characterizing the COVID pandemic as “a significant crisis” in UT/TXP polling continues to decline from 66% at the start of the pandemic to 43% today; while 39% say that they are concerned about the spread of COVID in their community, down from 54% at the start of the pandemic.
|category||A significant crisis||A serious problem but not a crisis||A minor problem||Not a problem|
Even amidst the last two significant outbreaks of COVID-19 variants, the governor has shown little interest in using his bully pulpit to accentuate the public health implications of the virus since projecting a public sense of emergency in the first weeks of the pandemic. After the national Republican response defined by then-president Donald Trump largely underplayed the threat of the virus and the need for sustained efforts to slow its spread, the more prominent public expressions of the governor’s response have been much more restrained. As loud complaints in Texas echoed national Republican talking points about prioritizing individual rights (over public health), the governor pivoted sharply. COVID policy emanating from the governor’s office, when they appeared, have tended to emphasize specific connections with other elements of his agenda (e.g. his sustained assertion of the authority of the state over local self-governance, a repeatedly stated fealty to certain kinds of personal liberties, and maintaining the desired level of alarm about border security and immigration) rather than focus attention solely or even primarily on public health.
|Don't know/No opinion||6%||6%||2%|
There is evidence that the governor’s approach to the pandemic has been largely driven by the loud concerns of a relatively small share of Texas Republicans. The middle-ground political strategy of downplaying state action while leaving the work of managing the response to surges to tightly-leashed local authorities played well enough with most of his Republican base. For all the noise made by Abbott’s also-ran primary challengers about his handling of the pandemic, the lion’s share of Republicans in the February 2022 UT/TXP Poll (73%) approved of the governor’s handling of the pandemic, though the intensity of their approval has decreased over its duration. Support for an approach built primarily on downplaying the severity of COVID is largely consistent with the perpetual partisan differences in assessments of the seriousness of the pandemic.
|category||A significant crisis||A serious problem but not a crisis||A minor problem||Not a problem|
|Neither approve nor disapprove||7%||17%||12%|
Given the immediate backlash to Abbott’s embrace of basic public health protocol at the beginning of the pandemic, or at the very least, his willingness to let local governments carry out those policies, politically, Abbott’s about face in the pandemic’s early stages was easily explainable by the political dynamics he was facing in an election year. But now that he’s made it through the primary, the extension of his declaration of emergency over the COVID pandemic might initially strike an odd chord. After several months of downplaying the pandemic, with the virus seemingly (hopefully) in abeyance thanks to vaccinations, natural immunity, and broader awareness of how to manage its presence, renewing his emergency powers might seem superfluous, and even politically off-message.
But a quiet renewal of the emergency order is consistent with two characteristics of Abbott’s approach to being governor.
First, it enables him to maintain the additional powers that the initial declaration granted his office. If there has been one persistent theme of Abbott’s governorship, it has been an effort to adjust the distribution of power in the Texas political system toward the executive branch. However low-key the public messaging on COVID, the pandemic remains enough of a presence, particularly with the increasing coverage of the spread of another Omicron sub-variant in parts of Asia and Europe, to provide a rationale for institutional vigilance should anyone ask. The governor thus maintains the ability to act with limited legislative or judicial oversight, particularly in pushing back against local government and health authorities.
Second, declining to effectively declare an end of the need to manage the pandemic reflects a cautious political calculation as the governor’s reelection effort enters the general election campaign. Quietly preserving the institutional powers provided by the emergency declaration maintains the governor’s options while also opening a public debate over the status of the pandemic in the state. While the situation has improved drastically since the peaks of 2020 and 2021, medical experts and other scientists have been at pains to remind a weary public (and elected officials) that improvement does not mean that the virus has been vanquished. There are still risks out there, and we know (per the data above) that independents and Democrats (along with a non-trivial share of Republicans) are still mindful of that risk. A debate over just how we should think of COVID in 2022 doesn’t fit with the governor’s apparent strategy of talking about the issue as little as possible. Better to simply maintain the status quo — including the extra executive powers that come with it — and not find oneself placed in front of the equivalent of a “mission accomplished” banner prematurely in an election year.
Both of these rationales are operative for the renewal of emergency powers related to the border, in much more straightforward ways, with much more straightforward political benefits.
The renewal of the declaration stating that “the surge of individuals unlawfully crossing the Texas-Mexico border posed an ongoing and imminent threat of disaster for a number of Texas counties and for all state agencies affected by this disaster” is significantly less surprising given the governor’s demonstrated commitment to pouring state resources and political capital into border and immigration issues under the umbrella of Operation Lone Star. Approval of Abbott’s handling of the border and immigration among Republicans is more enthusiastic than are his ratings on COVID. The emergency declaration helps buttress the increased discretionary spending centralized in the governor’s office, and is of course consistent with Republicans' characterization of the situation on the border and of the Biden administration’s response.
|Neither approve nor disapprove||14%||16%||8%|
|Neither approve nor disapprove||24%||15%||6%|
Here, the political benefits to the governor are clear. Border security is an issue that (1) activates the Republican base; (2) Democratic administrations real and potential have limited credibility over when it comes to all Republicans, many independents, and even some Democrats; and (3) is an issue that allows Abbott to appeal to a general election audience in a way that doesn’t require reframing or back-tracking on other, less broadly popular policies Republicans have embraced and promoted during the long run-up to the GOP primary (e.g. permitless carry or efforts to censor libraries). The renewal of the emergency order permits him to continue to use executive powers to exploit these benefits, along with the symbolic benefits of continuing to officially classify the situation as an emergency. While there might be some benefit to ratifying more active state-led border security enforcement as the new normal, a midterm-election year with a Democrat in the White House is an unlikely time for the governor to declare the emergency over, or to send any message that might be taken as implying that the situation on the border has improved while Joe Biden was in office.
There are policy justifications that Abbott can draw upon to counter reflexive criticisms that these renewals are purely political. However many doubts there may be in some corners about the level of threat presently posed by COVID or the security of the Texas-Mexico border, there are signs aplenty that these problems could become more acute and more publicly visible again before the November election. A new subvariant of the Omicron variant is causing spikes in infections in Asia and Europe, and the CDC has recently okayed a fourth booster shot for vulnerable populations. In the border region, historical data suggests that we are approaching a seasonal increase in migration flows toward the U.S.-Mexico border.
Whatever the severity of another COVID surge or of a seasonal increase in migration, pairing the extension of the border security order with a renewal of the COVID order preserves the status quo. This maximizes Abbott’s authority while avoiding unwanted political questions that might accompany declaring that either problem can be downgraded to less than a disaster, implying that it has been “solved.” With these declarations, the governor invokes a need to stand ready to respond to problems, present or future, that national Democrats have failed to solve – while sidestepping the fact that both parties have presided over subpar institutional responses in both areas.