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When a post-policy party confronts an energy crisis

When Texans' lights went out, they needed a governing party controlling the levers of power. Instead they had Republicans with misguided priorities.
Image: Texas Struggles With Unprecedented Cold And Power Outages
Icicles hang off the state highway 195 sign on Feb. 18, 2021 in Killeen, Texas.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

To fix a problem, one must acknowledge and understand the problem. Texas, for example, is trying to recover from last week's crisis in which much of the state lost reliable access to power, water, heat, and food. While it was a complex crisis, there's no great mystery as to why the Lone Star State suffered.

Texas' experiment in deregulation, independence, and policy passivity helped create last week's systemic breakdown. The Houston Chronicle's Erica Grieder explained over the weekend, the bulk of the crisis was the result of "freezes at coal, nuclear and natural gas plants — which make up most of our generation capacity. Had they been weatherized, this disaster could have been avoided."

It's against this backdrop that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) ran to Fox News to inexplicably blame renewable energy and the Green New Deal -- the goals of which his state has not adopted -- a bizarre claim the Texas Republican Party has been quick to echo. Around the same time, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) briefly fled to Mexico for a vacation.

The Republican senator has, not surprisingly, faced widespread derision for his Cancun sojourn, which he's acknowledged was "a mistake." But what Cruz hasn't done is explain in any detail what he should've done as his constituents struggled. By all appearances, Cruz, currently in his second term, believes it's his job to make media appearances, tweet, and annoy his colleagues at committee hearings.

The idea of using his office to marshal resources, coordinate the response, and tackle energy policy doesn't appear on the senator's vision of his job description. The governor's interest in changing the subject wasn't much better, and it was part of a larger pattern.

The Washington Post explained that in response to earlier crises, Abbott has demonstrated a willingness to seek "future legislative changes that may never happen," while delivering different messages to different constituencies.

If it sounds like a group of officials who aren't prioritizing governing, it's not your imagination. The New York Times' Jamelle Bouie explained:

Faced with one of the worst crises in the recent history of the state, Republicans have turned their attention away from conditions on the ground and toward the objects of their ideological ire. The issue isn't energy policy; it is liberals and environmentalists.... Amid awful suffering and deteriorating conditions, Texas Republicans decided to fight a culture war. In doing so, they are emblematic of the national party, which has abandoned even the pretense of governance in favor of the celebration of endless grievance.

This is a subject near and dear to me because of the book I wrote on Republican politics, and while The Impostors doesn't touch on last week's developments in Texas, it does contextualize the problem Jamelle described: the GOP's total indifference toward using the levers of power to solve problems.

When Texans struggled without power or water, it was a policy problem, resulting from poor governing decisions made by officials who were principally focused on ideological priorities. It's identical to how Republicans have approached practically every substantive challenge in recent years, including the coronavirus pandemic.

Dealing with the consequences -- and preventing similar breakdowns -- will require a series of substantive choices, each of which will fall on policymakers who'll need to rely on evidence, data, and expertise.

Or put another way, Texans will have to hope that politicians from a post-policy party will focus less on tweets, conservative media appearances, and culture-war grievances, and more on overhauling a tragically flawed energy framework. Given what's become of the Republican Party and its approach to policymaking, it's difficult to be optimistic.

As Jamelle's column concluded, "Our system has room for two major political parties. One of them, however imperfectly, at least attempts to govern. The other has devoted its energy to entertainment. It is a tragedy for the people of Texas that at this moment of danger, they have to deal with a government of showmen."