Texas Governor Greg Abbott Is Trying to Lead in a Pandemic Without Picking Sides

“Abbott needed to provide a straightforward call to action that could be easily communicated to millions of Texans,” the editorial board of the Austin American-Statesman argued following Mr. Abbott’s executive order on Tuesday. “Instead,” they wrote, “he danced around with semantics.”

If Texans have struggled to pin down Mr. Abbott’s view on the virus, their lieutenant governor has left no uncertainty about his own. Indeed, Americans who regularly tune into Fox News often know where Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick stands on any given issue, and the coronavirus has been no exception. On March 24, Mr. Patrick joined Tucker Carlson’s show to stress the need for Americans to “get back to work” and “back to living” or risk economic collapse. He said that grandparents like him were willing to risk “survival” in order to maintain a strong American economy for their children and grandchildren.

In the past, Mr. Patrick’s brash style has proved useful to Mr. Abbott, allowing the lieutenant governor to become the face of polarizing issues even when Mr. Abbott, the temperamental inverse of Mr. Patrick, might support them himself. Ask Texans about the so-called bathroom bill of 2017, legislation that would have restricted the restrooms that transgender people could use, and they’ll remember Mr. Patrick as its champion, the guy who held news conferences and promoted it on cable news. Less memorable in those scenes is Mr. Abbott, who despite taking great care to telegraph his reluctance, and never meaningfully opining one way or the other, ultimately agreed to call a special session to consider the bill.

Today, however, rather than offering political cover, Mr. Patrick’s strong positions serve mostly to highlight the governor’s strained pursuit of middle ground. It is not that Mr. Abbott has been absent. Many of his decisions have elicited bipartisan praise, including asking health insurers to waive costs of coronavirus testing and telemedicine visits, requesting the expansion of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to drive-through restaurants, and increasing hospital capacity.

But before Tuesday, in tossing critical decisions like stay-at-home orders to the local level, Mr. Abbott left county officials to scramble for guidance on how to slow the virus’s spread when strict social-distancing policies were in place in, say, Dallas County, but people were allowed to move freely in Collin County next door. The result, critics say, has been a muddled vision for how Texans should confront this crisis precisely when clarity is most needed.

“Trump’s biggest failing has been in sending mixed messages from the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic,” said Mustafa Tameez, a Democratic strategist based in Houston. Abbott, he argued, has done the same. “At least with Dan Patrick you know where he stands.”

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