Texas Democrats have a big problem: They’re a minority.
And minority parties cannot get a lot accomplished unless they build and form consensus outside their own coalitions. If that fails, they can engage in arcane procedural maneuvers and fight to water down offending initiatives with amendments. They can also make dramatic appeals to public opinion in the effort to shame their opponents from doing that which their electoral power affords them. That’s the risky maneuver Texas Democrats undertook on Monday in their effort to block Republican legislation that would pare back some of the pandemic’s more permissive emergency voting provisions while codifying others.
But Texas’s opposition party proceeded with this already fraught endeavor with such a galling lack of humility and contempt for the most elementary of best political practices that it is almost impossible to imagine its success. And the fallout from this stunt may not settle over the Lone Star state alone.
The plan was reportedly hatched last week. Lacking any other way to block the passage of the bill they oppose, Democratic legislators would flee the state, denying the majority party the minimum number of members sufficient to proceed with legislative business. This is a tactic with a history of dramatic failure, but the drama was to be the point.
Thus, Texas Democrats took to the hills, but only in the most ponderous fashion imaginable. Unlike the last time the party tried to deny Republicans a quorum in 2003, the opposition didn’t travel to a neighboring state. They opted to go directly to Washington D.C., providing Texas Republicans with the most beneficial optical contrast with their opponents they could have possibly hope for.
This, we must assume, was the result of a compromise, albeit a logically incomprehensible one. As NBC News reported, Texas Democrats initially considered “decamping to West Virginia and Arizona,” not to put pressure on Republicans back home but to lobby centrist Democrats in Washington to support abolishing the filibuster in order to pass a constitutionally dubious election-reform bill on the federal level. Already, Texas’s Democrats had lost their own plot.
But Republicans didn’t have to wait for touchdown at Dulles International Airport to take advantage of their opponents’ strategic oversight. The state’s Democrats provided them with embarrassing anecdotes every step of the way.
These Democratic lawmakers liveblogged their journey, photographing themselves chartering a bus on their way to the airport armed with a case of Miller Lite. “Wasn’t even Shiner,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn wryly observed. From there, these oversharing lawmakers photographed themselves in one of the private planes they chartered on their way to the nation’s capital, where all declined to observe masking guidelines that the Federal Aviation Administration mandates for all air passengers.
At no point did these lawmakers consider that their behaviors—from shutting down the proceedings of a duly elected government, to retreating to the embrace of federal Democrats, to casually flouting the pandemic-related inconveniences that the little people still must observe—might not endear them to their constituents back home.
Indeed, it’s unlikely that convincing the Texas voters of the protest’s rectitude was the goal. When Texas’s House Democrats arrived in Washington, they embarked on a public-relations campaign to lobby Congress to do something—it is entirely unclear what—that would allow them to stay out of Austin for the foreseeable future. At the very least, they sought to enlist themselves in the national Democratic Party’s fight against “Trump Republicans’ nationwide war on democracy.” The casual Texas-based observer could be forgiven for having no idea what any of this has to do with his state.
It doesn’t appear that anyone in the Democratic Party in Washington sees this ill-conceived misadventure as a liability for their party. No less a figure than Vice President Kamala Harris endorsed the maneuver. “I applaud them standing for the rights of all Americans and all Texans to express their voice through their vote unencumbered,” the vice president said. “They are leaders who are marching in the path that so many others before did when they fought—and many died—for our right to vote.”
It’s hard to imagine that average Texans who were privy to this spectacle saw the modern-day equivalent of civil-rights activists risking everything in pursuit of a righteous and well-defined objective. Rather, they saw their elected officials having a grand time and enjoying the national limelight while citizens picked up the cost. All the while, these lawmakers devoted themselves more to national politics well beyond their remit than the local issues they were elected to address.
If there is a strategy on display here, it is probably only apparent to those who didn’t need any convincing.