Analysis: With General Election Looming, GOP Forms Line at Bathrooms

By Ross Ramsey, The Texas Tribune, texastribune.org

So, the lieutenant governor of Texas — who missed a round of headlines regarding the state’s Game of Thrones bathroom battle with the federal government — is asking the state’s top lawyer, a fellow conservative Republican, for an official opinion on whether Texas school districts should follow a federal directive on how to handle potty breaks and locker room visits for transgender students.

Yes, that’s a long windup, but this tale has a lot of moving parts.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick wants Attorney General Ken Paxton — who is suing the federal government over its recommended rules for schools with transgender students — to say whether Texas schools should obey federal or state leaders until this dispute is settled.

The issue has many undeniably sensational ingredients: toilets, showers, boys, girls, transgender students, political officials, microphones, cameras, schools, federal vs. state government, state vs. local government.

If Betty Crocker could get all of that into one box, they’d have a blockbuster recipe for homemade cable news. The package’s expiration date would fall sometime after the November elections, perhaps even after next year’s session of the Texas Legislature.

This problem — not even a blip on most political radars six weeks ago — is becoming, with Patrick’s nurturing, something for Republicans to talk about when they tire of arguing about the presidential race.

The issue is a very big deal to some people. Transgender students who don’t want to wear dresses into men’s rooms or beards into women’s rooms would be one group. People who don’t want men-who-identify-as-women in women’s rooms or women-who-identify-as-men in men’s rooms would be another.

It’s a legitimate topic for a hot argument or a political fight (check out the conversation following Patrick’s latest Facebook post on the issue). But so is rape at Baylor University, and none of these public officials has taken a swing at that. So is the state’s ragged, underfunded safety net for foster children and for kids and adults in persistently dangerous circumstances, and they’re not holding news conferences at their political conventions about that.

It’s a great political diversion, too. Some conservatives seem to think you’d get different federal answers on the transgender issue from Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

It’s a legitimate topic for a hot argument or a political fight … But so is rape at Baylor University, and none of these public officials has taken a swing at that.

Clinton has made noises generally supporting the Obama administration on transgender issues without taking a specific position on the bathroom memo from his Department of Education or on that issue.

Trump’s initial reaction to this particular crisis was that he had no problem with transgender people deciding for themselves what bathrooms to use. He has amended that to saying the states should decide.

Maybe Patrick, who was one of the first Ted Cruz supporters to jump on the Trump wagon when Cruz got out of that race, is trying to gin up a difference between the candidates that engages conservative voters. Patrick is backing a weak candidate — an assessment based on polls asking people whether they like the Trumpster or not — and there are still significant numbers of Republican holdouts clinging to their #nevertrump hashtags.

Perhaps the bathroom battle will make the Democrats seem worse by comparison.

For Paxton, who is leading a phalanx of state attorneys general in a lawsuit challenging the federal government over the rules, it’s a chance to talk about his public job in a politically beneficial way instead of the felony indictments and federal civil fraud charges dogging him in his private job as an attorney.

Gov. Greg Abbott has been a peripheral player in this, with a few exceptions: He snuck into Paxton’s spotlight last week, announcing — a few hours before Paxton did — that the attorney general would be “challenging the way that the Obama administration is trampling the United States Constitution.”

Patrick has led the parade, starting with a visit to Fort Worth to protest that school district’s transgender bathroom policy and then, just days later, ginning up interest and headlines at the state convention of the Republican Party of Texas.

He was the first statewide official to light into the Obama administration over its guidelines for schools and its suggestion that federal funding might be on the line for schools that don’t comply.

Whatever their motivation, Patrick and the others have latched onto a hot issue, one that might bring some of their voters to the polls in November. An issue that might open a fresh line of attack in the Texas vs. The United States war that has been raging for several years. One that might even boost conservatives’ efforts to spend state money on private schools — where the bathrooms aren’t under government control.

If you were Patrick, wouldn’t that be a great headline?

 

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