By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune, texastribune.org
NEW BRAUNFELS — He’s penned a glossy book heavy on biography and bold policy proposals. Now he’s touring the state in a massive bus wrapped with the cover on an ambitious 19-city promotional tour.
Less than a year and a half into his term, Gov. Greg Abbott appears to be following a path traveled by his two predecessors — write a book, raise your profile and then?
Supporters of Abbott, who plans to run for re-election in 2018, are starting to take notice. Toward the end of a line waiting for Abbott here at a strip-mall bookstore — one of many more to come in the next week — Abbott backer Pam Johnson grappled with the question that is facing the governor more than ever nowadays.
“What would I like to see him do?” she wondered aloud, pausing for a moment. “I think he would be a good president.”
Abbott, according to Johnson, would add “poise and dignity” to national Republican politics, currently consumed by an unruly race for the White House. “The man has backbone, carefully chooses his words, doesn’t fly off the handle,” she said, all but acknowledging the contrast with the GOP’s emerging standard-bearer, presumptive nominee Donald Trump.
Not so fast, says Abbott, whose go-to counterargument is that the timing of his book “Broken But Unbowed” runs counter to the notion he is eyeing higher office. “If that were the case, I would not be issuing the book right now,” Abbott told reporters Wednesday afternoon after launching the tour at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank in Austin.
That has done little to curb speculation that another Texas governor is laying the groundwork for a broader political profile.
“The book to me is all about the next rung on the ladder — what is the next rung on the ladder?” asked Bill Miller, a lobbyist who has been around Austin long enough to see two former governors — George W. Bush and Rick Perry — incubate their presidential ambitions. Miller’s prediction: If Trump loses in November, “Greg Abbott will be a candidate for president in four years.”
As questions crop up about Abbott’s political future, the governor and his aides are keeping the focus on the central topic of the book beside his life story: his push for a convention of states to amend the U.S. Constitution. It’s a far-fetched idea, but it’s tailor-made for an electorate teeming with anger at Washington, D.C., and Abbott stands a chance of serving as the national spokesman it has never quite had, at least in elected office.
“What Gov. Abbott brings to the table is the bully pulpit of the governor of Texas and the ability to speak to an audience in Texas and beyond,” said Mark Meckler, a leading convention-of-states activist. Meckler, president of Citizens for Self Governance, acknowledged he was initially curious about Abbott’s political motivations but said “when I talked with him — and I speak to a lot of politicians — this was not a political play for the governor.”
“It really wasn’t,” Meckler added. “It was something he just believed in.”
“The book to me is all about the next rung on the ladder — what is the next rung on the ladder?”— Bill Miller, lobbyist
Abbott’s national profile has been modest at best since taking office in January 2015. While he often weighs in on national issues, up until recently he had been only an occasional presence on all the normal avenues for self-promotion in modern GOP politics — cable news, talk radio, donor summits.
“He’s been very, very focused on Texas, and if he has any higher aspirations, he’s kept them under wraps, if only so that he can do his job here,” said Cutter Gonzalez, among the first Abbott supporters in line to get their book signed in New Braunfels. Gonzalez added that he would love to see Abbott run for president one day, but right now, the governor just does not “give the impression.”
Late last summer, Abbott began formulating the Texas Plan, which he announced in January at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. The idea of a book came up in early December, and Abbott spent the next five months pounding it out — by most accounts, a quicker timeline than usual for a tome by a sitting governor.
Abbott had at least one ghostwriter, but the governor ended up writing an overwhelming majority of the book himself, according to aides. A night owl, Abbott worked on the manuscript long after dark most days, often while in touch with a single aide.
The launch of the book began in earnest a week ago at the Texas GOP convention in Dallas, where the first copies were available for sale and Abbott held a number of signings in front of his bus parked inside the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center. The cause got a boost on the second day of the convention, when 81 percent of delegates voted in favor of a plank in the party platform that calls for a convention of states.
After the convention, Abbott camped out for two days in New York, making more than two dozen media appearances to promote the book. He was inevitably bombarded with questions about Trump, but also spent plenty of time explaining — and defending — his Texas Plan, including to a skeptical Laura Ingraham, the conservative radio host.
“This is the time when we can do this because it takes 34 states to propose an amendment. It takes 38 states to ratify it,” Abbott told Ingraham. “We now have more than 30 states that are run by Republicans.”
“He’s been very, very focused on Texas, and if he has any higher aspirations, he’s kept them under wraps.”— Cutter Gonzalez, Abbott supporter
Within Abbott’s own party, there is discord over whether a convention of states is the appropriate way to address mounting frustrations with federal inaction. Even U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, Abbott’s protégé in the attorney general’s office and the state’s most well-known Republican, has stopped short of endorsing a convention of states, instead offering sympathetic remarks when asked about it during his presidential campaign.
“It clearly is not going to happen,” former Texas GOP Chairman Tom Pauken said, adding that Abbott’s push seems more like “political posturing” than a serious crusade. “The irony is you’re misleading people because you’re leading people to believe it’s not that hard to get done, and it’s never been done before, so why is it going to be done now?”
Even with Abbott making an unusually high-profile pitch for the idea, it remains to be seen how deep support is in the Texas Legislature.
As he waited for Abbott to arrive at the book signing in New Braunfels, local Republican state Rep. Doug Miller voiced support for Abbott’s call for a convention of states — but said it would need to be carefully done. “Stick to a narrow agenda,” Miller said, adding that he is supportive of the nine amendments to the U.S. Constitution that Abbott has proposed.
Among the leading proponents of a convention of states in the Texas Legislature is state Sen. Charles Perry, who authored a resolution last session that urged Congress to call a convention of states. The resolution died in committee, but the Lubbock Republican said Thursday that next session could be different — both in Austin and nationally — with someone like Abbott leading the charge.
“They were waiting for Texas to show up and take the lead,” Perry said of other states potentially interested in the issue. “Who better to take the lead than a legal mind like Abbott and his constitutional background?”
As for the politics surrounding the book and bus tour, Perry said he is convinced Abbott has a genuine interest in advancing the convention-of-states cause. However, he and other Abbott allies admitted, you never know.
“Arguably anything you do that’s good public policy is good politically,” Perry said. “I don’t think you can separate the two.”
Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. Find a complete list of donors and sponsors here.
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