The Texas Gubernatorial Debate 2014

The Texas Gubernatorial Debate 2014 was held in Edinburg, Texas in the Rio Grande Valley, with Democrat Texas State Senator Wendy Davis facing off against Republican Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. In the shallowest version of identity politics ever put forth, it was labeled historic for both candidates to be present in the Valley, as if this should endear them to the “latin@” majority along the border. This was done at the same time as they both pushed their support for the “border surge”, code for militarization of the Rio Grande Valley as a Berlin Wall redux with a xenophobic taint.

Even more depressing was both sides faux-populism, whether anti-federal government or anti-lobbyist. Neither candidate was actually for revving up the population to get down to “throwin’ the bastards out”, nor did either candidate appear thrilled to even have to make their case to the people during the debate. It was all utterly uninspired from either peddler of oversimplifications the American public relations industry demands during political campaigns; the more vapid and vacuous, the more dollars invested in the campaign.

The debate was hosted by Telemundo 40 KTLM from Rio Grande City, CBS affiliate KGBT-TV from Harlingen, and The Monitor newspaper from McAllen. The panelists, Dalila Garza, Carlos Sanchez and Ryan Wolf, turned out to be atrocious. They never pushed either candidate to give a substantive answer to any of their poorly constructed questions, and allowed the candidates to constantly repeat similar trivial answers. This makes almost a quarter of the debate irrelevant, at some moments excruciatingly unbearable.

At least the questions stopped the commentariat from mimicking each other with the “historic debate” line, which seemed to be more about resume padding than anything else. It was their singular honor, as the audience was not even present; they were separated from the event boxed-up in an auditorium elsewhere. At least it was transmitted in Spanish by Telemundo, just so the “latin@” population could see how incredulous both candidates’ immigration positions are. The immigrants know what the gringo willfully ignores, the border crossed them and not vice versa.

The debate rules assured that slogans and sound bites would be served lukewarm to the audience; a question, a one minute response and then a 45 second rebuttal. A candidate developing policies and answers is not even thought of as necessary. Seriously, who has time for actual information when you can have great lines like, “we should be #1 in education” or “I will invest in communities”! Never touched on by either candidate was what the “Texas on the Brink” report laid out as Texas’ problems; “the state ranks 50th in high school graduation rate, first in amount of carbon emissions, first in hazardous waste produced, last in voter turnout, first in percentage of people without health insurance, and second in percentage of uninsured kids.” That would mean actually committing to a serious, critical discussion, an idea completely alien to the debate’s agenda.

The brief interlude whereby the candidates each asked each other a question was a waste, as both just continued playing to their partisan bases. Partisan bases are notorious for being locked into prepackaged ideological cocoons, so expect no serious discussion to flourish from such theatrics. Although, Davis’ disruption of protocol at this moment was about the liveliest part of the debate, liveliness quickly stopped by Wolf who thought the boring, rote repetition of slogans was the lively part. One can surmise how good of a journalist he must be; talks well into a camera though, for whatever its worth.

On many of the serious issues there was, following Cockburn and St. Clair’s thesis about Democrats and Republicans, a “dimes worth of difference”. For example, the death penalty was fully supported by both, with a DNA caveat. A new law, Senate Bill 1292, which went into effect last year, mandated that all biological evidence be tested before an execution happens. It did not come with any added funding, only the mandate. This is meant to give the death penalty in Texas a lift, as 131 inmates have been exonerated since 1989, with at least one known innocent man executed, Carlos DeLuna. The barbaric state-mandated killing of people will continue under either administration, conservative small government ideology be damned in matters of life and death.

Discussion of the death penalty was also the closest the conversation ever got to the prison-industrial complex plaguing the state and quickly being privatized. If Davis was so worried about lobbyists she may have actually made this a point of difference between her and Abbott, as private prison lobbyists push laws detrimental to the poor making their incarceration profitable. Texas currently has over 160,000 inmates, and appears to be backtracking on decarceration, a backtracking most likely to continue under either candidate, reversing the state’s reduction trend that began in 2011 and 2012. The “tough on crime” stance is so ingrained in Texas state politics, neither candidate would be provocative enough to push for prison abolition, or milder prison reforms, such as changes to sentencing laws making them less punitive or focusing more on rehabilitation (Molly Ivins always liked to bring up Ann Richards and her prison AA program).

By way of an aside, this is what saddens me about this election cycle. Decarceration could be taken more seriously if it was attached to serious discussion of the “drug war” (a war on poor people if there ever was one). Curtailing the drug war could also be used to demilitarize the police, who have been binging on Pentagon equipment. However, the only candidate that was discussing that seriously was Kinky Friedman, who lost out in the Democrat primary for State Agriculture Commissioner. Davis, as should be expected, didn’t endorse Kinky, which should let everyone know how dull her politics are. Something about apples could go here, but I figure you already get it. Davis is a practitioner of limp noodle politics, something Democrats have been great at it since their neoliberal turn under Clinton.

Immigration was also an issue they agreed upon, with any difference being rhetorical. Both supported the border surge, which sent the National Guard and more DPS officers to ramp up the criminalization of human beings. Both voiced support for even more “surge”, which seems like they would be ordering pallets of the notorious over-caffeinated soda. Even the word “humanitarian”, mentioned once by Davis, seemed to be nothing more than a campaign tool and not really linked to anything of substance.

Abbott went on about suing the Obama administration to pay for any costs incurred due to immigration. Davis doesn’t want to sue, but will make the federal government pay as well, along with her “just wanting to support communities” mantra, somehow meant to be an immigration policy. Both want “safe communities”, which they naturally see as derived from more police. The black and brown folks who see the police as making their neighborhoods unsafe (see Ferguson, Missouri for a recent example) are of no consequence, except when being used as props for the respective campaigns.

If there was a difference it plays out in the Democrat’s shallow identity politics, typically devoid of anything beyond a few words sprinkled here and there about racial justice. It helps that Abbott is under fire for labeling the Valley a third world outpost in America. He always retorts he has a “Hispanic wife” to deflect from his party’s affiliation with racists, and his own subjective racism. Leaving alone the etymology of Hispanic and why it is a fucked label from the jump, the “I have a black friend” argument always demarcates a person as having no clue what the hell they are taking about when it comes to race relations. Nor was Abbott’s comment much different from the general narrative about children migrants recently, who were considered “diseased”, “dirty” and “criminal”, rather than as innocent children who needed aid. But the Democrats are wusses and shy away from calling a duck a duck, or in this case, an Uncle Tom (Juan?), what it is.

O, there was the fact that Davis supports the undocumented having driver’s licenses and Abbott doesn’t. But her support was mainly due to insurance claims, rather than having anything to do with immigration status and legal privileges accrued to undocumented people in the US. Once more, it was the tiniest of differences. No one was going to tone down the anti-immigrant rhetoric; everyone would continue to employ military discourse to discuss immigration. In one highly ironic moment, Davis talks about boosting trade as a way to help at the border, evidencing an ignorance of the destructive effects NAFTA has produced since its implementation. Immigrants are coming because of failed trade policy, a policy constructed to benefit the oligarchies of both countries and not their laborers.

Further, when directly questioned about anti-immigrant rhetoric, they both swatted it away through obfuscation and avoidance. No need to deal with the lingering cultural affects of border surges and immigrants made out to be an invading army. Hell, hatin’ Mexicans is a Texas tradition going back to at least the slave-trading asshat William Barret Travis when he proclaimed Mexicans were not to be trusted, foreshadowing the racist land grabs to come (a tradition whose beginnings are discussed in the recent issue of CounterPunch by Lee Ballinger). Why the lily-white Davis or Abbott won’t grow a pair and speak out against xenophobia should be blatantly obvious; they give a shit more about the election than principle. Plus, the anti-immigrant rhetoric ties into their drug war rhetoric so neatly that they don’t have to deal with either issue, and are still gaining support at the same time.

This part got absolutely ridiculous, absurd and downright silly when they turned to discussing drug cartels. The most comical point made, which I hope Abbott knows was idiotic, was when Abbott says children should not be forced to have play dates with children whose parents are cartel members. Most kids I know don’t give a damn what their parents given professions are or the professions of their friends parents. Nor are they forced to go on play dates. What, a cartel member shows up in an Escalade, points a gun at you while you and your kid are at the playground and says, “Get the hell in the car so Billy and Bob can run around the sand box together or I’ll shoot.” Ya, exactly! This anecdote should shine a bright light on how low-level the debate was in terms of intelligence or substance.

There were a few truly notable differences that count: abortion, ACA and education. Abortion is what made Wendy Davis famous and got her through the democratic primary and running for governor. She filibustered reactionary legislation, which was eventually still passed, although remains in litigation. This is instructive of what a Wendy Davis governorship would be able to accomplish; nothing. The majority in both houses is Republican, not likely to change as Texas is very well gerrymandered. This is Tom DeLay’s state for Christ’s sake! If anything, Davis would represent a symbolic victory for the Democrat party, which doesn’t do anything to support the populist policies needed in Texas (see Obama for what symbolic victories accomplish).

The ACA expansion should not even be an issue. It is more a demonstration of how far off the Republicans have gone than any reason to vote for Davis. Of course you take the money and cover people. If anything, Davis shows a lack of further conviction or imagination, characteristics that would be necessary if she would want to push for a universal health coverage plan at the state-level similar to what is being pushed forward in Vermont. Now, there is a state utilizing its state’s right to pass legislation to actually tackle an issue in an effective and just way. Instead, with Davis’ meek support for ACA expansion, she already belies the principled champion she won’t be. Another wannabe populist governor with a governing strategy hell bent on not ticking off the white conservative reactionaries.

The topic of education is another place where there is notable difference. A major part of which is currently being litigated, with Judge Dietz ruling the state education funding system unconstitutional for its unequal distribution of resources and being a de facto state property tax (actually making Texas have a higher, more regressive tax structure than California). The case arose after 5.4 billion dollars in cuts were passed in 2011, a heinous gesture of austerity aimed primarily at the poor who most rely on public education. Yet, even here Davis is not so much different, only less gung-ho. She may want to reinstate the cuts, but she also supports charter schools and isn’t exactly making a policy proposal for Deweyite schools across the state. A difference of degree, never of kind, that summarizes Wendy Davis quite well.

Beyond their agreement on the issues and minor to trivial differences, there were topics completely omitted from the discussion. For example, labor was not even brought up during the debate. And labor has many problems in Texas, a state with the highest occupational death rate in the country. O, there was talk about the little guy, but that is just abstract posturing. Nothing substantive about unions or wages was discussed, except Davis’ wink at the exploitatively low “increase” in the minimum wage now making the rounds as the Democrat party’s main platform selling point. Davis may do photo-ops with SEIU folks in Houston, but she isn’t pushing to repeal the “right to work” laws. Abbott’s position is entirely obvious as it is callous, so no need remonstrating him for being immoral when it comes to the treatment of labor; he most likely already knows and doesn’t give a shit. Effectively, labor is not included in Texas politics, the debate clearly showed this.

The debate ended with their closing statements, two minutes of bullshit partisan blabber looking to ignite the base. Neither candidate actually has any need to do anything else. Abbot is by all accounts going to win in a landslide; Davis is just there for the simulacra of democracy voting gives the population. Understanding how the two candidates stacked up should leave us depressed with the word pathetic to describe the debate. Even for political theater it was an abject failure, bringing to mind once more the word pathetic. It could have been a little more interesting if Libertarian Party candidate Kathie Glass or Green Party candidate Brandon Parmer had been allowed to participate. But just as voter ID laws work to restrict the vote, so do both parties restrict the limits of political thought in the state, thus making sure once more that there is no democracy.

So, are there any differences? Sure! But, if you think Davis should get points for not being Abbott, you have a really low bar on what you think your politicians are suppose to accomplish and fight for. The “historic debate” was a travesty, a representation of a non-existent “left” in the state and a foreboding sign that a depressing Tuesday will happen in November.

Andrew Smolski is a writer based in Texas. 

Andrew Smolski is a writer and sociologist.