Govs. Abbott, DeSantis go too far

by Carl P. Leubsdorf

There’s an old saying in politics that the best government makes the best politics. But Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis seem to be approaching that backward.

Much of their current legislative and executive agendas seems designed more to strengthen their standing with the GOP’s conservative base than to meet the serious needs of their states.

Along with massive war chests, it’s a sign that both Sun Belt governors are focused as much on the GOP’s 2024 presidential race as on their current jobs or even their 2022 re-election races, in which both are favored.

Their agendas have many similar aspects: imposing new limits on abortion rights, tightening voting laws to meet unproven allegations of fraud, and restricting local governments from requiring anti-COVID masks and mandates.

Some measures raise questions about the impact on the rights of individuals and local government or challenge the constraints of constitutionality. But the policies have helped to maintain the governors’ popularity with their conservative bases.

In recent weeks, however, both governors may have gone too far.

Abbott took a pair of questionable initiatives designed to show he is doing more to contain the nation’s porous Southern border than the Biden administration. One caused such a counter-reaction he had to withdraw it.

Earlier, Abbott sent thousands of Texas National Guard troops to the border with little evident effect. Last week, he dispatched state troopers to stop much of the incoming truck traffic from Mexico to inspect it for contraband drugs and illegal immigrants.

He also launched a plan to bus migrants north to embarrass opponents of stricter border enforcement.

Neither seems to have achieved the desired results.

The enhanced border inspections, along with resistance by Mexican truckers, created a massive traffic jam, prompting unusual criticism from another staunch conservative, state Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller.

“This misguided policy will have little or no impact on the invasion on our southern border, caused by the inaction of the Biden administration,” Abbott’s fellow conservative Republican said. Miller warned it would “hurt Texas and American consumers by driving up already skyrocketing food prices” and saddle “Texas and American companies with untold losses.”

Abbott’s inspectors reportedly found many safety violations but few illegal materials or people, while threatening spoilage of millions of dollars of Mexican agriculture products. Within days, he backed off, citing agreements with four Mexican states that mainly reiterated prior efforts.

In Washington, the arriving migrants were greeted by social groups and other charitable organizations who welcomed them and planned to facilitate their settlement in the United States.

Meanwhile, in Florida, DeSantis signed a new law critics nicknamed “Don’t Say Gay,” which limits classroom discussions of sexual-related issues. The legislature also passed his “Stop WOKE (the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employers) Act” curbing workplace and classroom discussions of diversity issues and stripped the special tax status of one of his critics, the Walt Disney Co.

DeSantis also strong-armed the obeisant Florida legislature into passing a redistricting plan that may well violate the Voting Rights Act by eliminating two majority Black U.S. House districts.

Last week, he took the unusual step of inserting himself into post-census congressional redistricting, expanding what had been a typical effort by a majority party — in this case, Florida’s Republicans — to take political advantage of the minority.

On Thursday, the legislature approved his plan, giving the GOP a 20-8 margin and eliminating districts represented by Reps. Val Demings in Central Florida and Al Lawson in northern Florida, redrawing the lines so the areas they represent would be folded into majority white Republican districts.

The Voting Rights Act makes it illegal to provide some members of the electorate with “less opportunity than other members of the electorate … to elect representatives of their choice,” though it doesn’t provide “a right to have members of a protected class elected in numbers equal to their proportion in the population.”

In a sense, DeSantis seeks to expand on what Abbott and the Texas GOP did in their post-2020 redistricting by reducing the number of Hispanic-majority districts at a time when the state’s population growth is mainly Hispanic.

Florida Democrats made clear they will appeal the redistricting plan, and federal courts will ultimately decide the issue, as they will in Texas. While the appeals courts that will consider the redistricting plans and the Supreme Court all now have conservative majorities, critics hope the courts will recognize this blatant disregard for the Voting Rights Act’s protections.

After all, one aspect of good government is fair representation. Whatever the legal outcome, however, Abbott and DeSantis have once again shown that their No. 1 governing principle is the satisfaction of their conservative political bases.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.