Analysis: The political value of an interruption

Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton hosted 12 attorneys general from around the U.S. for a border security briefing at Texas DPS regional headquarters in Weslaco on Jan. 27, 2022. (Michael Gonzalez For The Texas Tribune, Michael Gonzalez For The Texas Tribune)

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A nasty weather system swept across Texas this week, dropping tornadoes, hail, wind and rain in the central and southeast parts of the state before moving east to wreak more damage in Louisiana.

The only good news was that it didn’t hurt more people or do more damage than it did.

The aftermath included, as it always does, official assessments, disaster aid, people setting things back in order and government officials zipping to the hardest-hit places to offer solace and assistance.

That last group — governors, legislators, mayors and so on — is doing what people expect. There is a political benefit in that, in proper performance of the job voters elected you to do, even when it’s an interruption of what was going on before the storm.

In this case, it was especially beneficial because it turned attention away from news that was bubbling up before the weather turned ugly.

Politicians get dinged by news interruptions as often as they benefit. Weather and other events turn heads. Public leaders are constantly interrupted when they’re talking about pet projects, campaigns, political rallying points or important debates over policy.

Gov. Greg Abbott has been on a disaster tour of the state after this week’s storms, a part of his job with which he has become both comfortable and comforting, through weather, shootings and other disasters. It’s when governors take off their business jackets and put on field jackets with state patches, shifting from boardroom wear to disaster casual.

It can turn on them if things aren’t going well, as Abbott learned on several occasions after the arrival of COVID-19 in Texas. Some of his recommendations and orders on masks, business closings and public safety and health backfired, putting him on a roller coaster that rose and fell with surges and declines of the pandemic.

This week, however, he’s getting time away from problems with his $3 billion effort to police the Texas-Mexico border. Claims of the successes of the state’s effort to stop people and drugs from crossing that frontier have been overblown, according to new reporting from The Texas Tribune, ProPublica and The Marshall Project. National Guard troops on the border told the Tribune and Military Times about troubles like not being paid, being deployed on a mission that makes no sense and being dispatched to guard private ranches that already have private security.

In an election year, a governor would rather help people beset by weather disaster than defend an expensive operation with that many kinks in it.

Ken Paxton, a Republican trying to win a May runoff in his bid for reelection as attorney general, will be in the town of Carbon on Friday, talking about the Eastland Complex wildfires that drove people out of their homes and businesses there.

Paxton has mastered the art of interrupting bad news, recently asking the Texas Supreme Court to let him continue investigations of transgender families and battling the Austin school district over a Pride Week celebration.

Those are nice diversions from being forced into a runoff by his own party’s voters. Or talking to Texans about the whistleblowers in his state agency who prompted federal investigations and legal action by contending he was using his public office for the benefit of a political donor. Or from more talk of an almost seven-year-old securities fraud indictment that still hasn’t gone to trial. Or the complaint at the State Bar of Texas that accuses him of professional misconduct for suing to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.

All of those accusations and allegations might come to nothing, but no candidate wants to talk about stuff like that during a campaign — especially when there are red-meat cultural issues and wildfires to talk about.

Who wouldn’t welcome a change of subject?

Disclosure: State Bar of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.