All through last weekend’s Texas Tribune Festival at the University of Texas in Austin, I kept running into folks who regaled me with colorful details of its many highlights, the really sexy stuff. For instance, Craig Thornton, husband of local civic leader Ashley Bean Thornton, told me about Minnesota Sen. Al Franken’s riotous festival appearance.
Seems Franken, a former comedian, couldn’t resist lampooning arguably the Senate’s most reviled figure, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, often dropping lines from Franken’s recently issued Senate memoir such as this gem: “I probably like Ted Cruz more than most of my colleagues like Ted Cruz — and I hate Ted Cruz.”
Waco Plan Commissioner LaRaine DuPuy told me of Beto O’Rourke, the charismatic West Texas Democratic congressman who promises to make Cruz’s re-election bid a lively one in 2018. O’Rourke acknowledged much respect for Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi — and stressed he didn’t want her campaigning for him in Texas. Wise move.
So how did I invest my time at this annual festival for hopeless policy wonks? Sessions on mental health legislation, Medicaid, Title IX changes, immigration vetting and growing furor over city ordinances versus state overreach. From that, one gets an idea of how different priorities are for not only work-a-day journalists but also many Texas Tribune Festival participants, a fair number of them politically astute individuals who care about the facts and nuances of complicated issues. One fellow told me he enjoyed Franken’s jokes but really wanted more policy arguments.
Yeah, it’s that kind of crowd.
I learned plenty, some of it surprising. For instance, Avik Roy, author of “Transcending Obamacare,” opinion editor of Forbes and former policy adviser to former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, said he’d rather keep the subsidized premiums of the Affordable Care Act in place than Medicaid, given the effect the former might have on health-care costs. And to a smart question by Jessica Attas, policy director of the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, Roy said one way to lower taxpayer costs is to boot off Medicare rich people who can afford their health insurance. Yes, this was real conservatism with a dash of studied innovation.
In a session on whether the State of Texas is stifling the once-sacred concept of local control by restricting the ability of cities and counties to tend to constituent needs, Democratic state Rep. Gina Hinojosa acknowledged that differences in outlook go beyond Republican and Democratic, liberal and conservative views. They involve urban versus rural perspectives, the latter reinforced by vast distances and the distinct feeling you’re on your own in desolate stretches of Texas.
Hinojosa, who represents a slice of Austin, recalled a legislative discussion over whether church congregation leaders should be able to arm members rather than relying on private security firms. When a church official was asked why he wouldn’t just call the police if a problem arose, the official cited the church’s remote location: “When we call, it takes an hour for the police to get there.”
The point: It’s a different world in much of Texas — and one-size-fits-all legislation out of Austin doesn’t always address every community’s specific and unique needs (though in this case state legislation recognized this fact, even though it likely passed as a sop to the almighty gun lobby).
And there was a session on campus sexual assaults with panelists including Baylor University junior Sierra Smith, a sexual-assault survivor whose experience spurred her ongoing efforts to press for reforms at Texas colleges and universities, and state Sen. Kirk Watson, who successfully pressed a number of bills codifying such reforms this past legislative session. A proud Baylor alumnus, Watson said his chief regret was not seeing to passage a provision strictly requiring “affirmative consent” by students contemplating sexual relations. He’ll try again next session.
Watson generously said the idea of affirmative consent in sexual matters was possibly too foreign to some legislators: “The policymakers aren’t there yet.”
My only treat to myself: A wild session on President Trump and ethics, mostly out of a gnawing concern that Trump’s disregard for so many norms and traditions going all the way back to George Washington might transform, for the worse, not only the American presidency but the republic. Two most vivid panelists: Former Whitewater counsel and Wacoan Ken Starr, who in his wonderfully nuanced way (every word calmly, lovingly articulated) said he saw nothing thus far out of the Trump administration that indicated obstruction of justice, and Richard W. Painter, blunt, no-nonsense ethics lawyer of the George W. Bush White House, who said if Trump continues violating the Constitution, he should be turned out — and that there’s enough evidence to pursue such a course.
When asked on stage if some of those presidential norms and traditions should be codified into law to prevent conflicts of interest, nepotism and other ethical concerns in future presidencies, Painter exploded: “I just think we need a sense of decency. I don’t think [we need] a bunch of rules. For example, you’re not going to have a rule that, after you’ve won an election, you don’t keep trashing on the person you just beat in the election, whether or not she actually won the popular vote. You actually do your job as president. Anyone in the Bush White House who was mouthing off about Al Gore or John Kerry the way these people including the president mouth off about Hillary Clinton, we would have fired them on the spot. I mean, the election’s over. That made no sense. And then this thing that happened over there in Huntsville two days ago — is this Huntsville, Alabama, in 2017 or Nuremberg, Germany, in 1933? I mean, it’s terrible. You got people in the crowd screaming, ‘Lock her up,’ and you’d think the president of the United States would not sink to the level of that type of person in a crowd.”
At another point, Painter, vice chairman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, complained of crumbling ethics of some Americans: “I think it’s important we respect truth and facts. Living in a world of alternative facts, we just make up massacres out of whole cloth — Kellyanne Conway’s so-called ‘Bowling Green Massacre’ — where the president of the United States says his predecessor was spying on him and then decides to accuse the British as well. I mean, the list just goes on and on. We should not tolerate in our daily lives anyone who cannot tell the truth.”
(Starr’s turn to shine came days later when he told MSNBC news anchor Brian Williams that the Robert Mueller investigation is likely only beginning, that there “will be a number of indictments before this is over” and that the president will almost certainly have to testify under oath. Judge Starr also stressed the importance of Trump and his associates telling the truth: “You got to be transparent, as we now know with Jared Kushner and the latest revelations [about transacting public business on private emails and failing to disclose this]. These facts are going to come out.”)
People leaving Hogg Auditorium excitedly discussed one of the few pieces of advice offered: contacting lawmakers and insisting they support a bill prohibiting the firing of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Maybe it’s good the rollicking session on Trump concluded my day of mostly dry policy discussions. It transitioned me back to a world both real and unreal. Adding to realities looming beyond this inner sanctum of public policy: four stone pedestals on the Texas campus that, till this summer’s racially charged rhetoric and violence, supported figures associated with the Confederacy (well, three of them anyway). These included Robert E. Lee, his life fast becoming one of outright fantasy via social media. The lonely pedestals, bound in plastic, also suggested today’s tempests are often tomorrow’s tedium.
After arriving home, I turned on the boob tube. Two things dominated the news: First, the president’s attacks on the NFL, which turned a mostly unheralded protest by some African-American football players focused on police brutality into an assault on the flag, veterans and the armed forces. Second, a health-care bill deceptively advertised as many things it was not. Republicans eventually coming clean insisted what was in the bill was less important than the fact it allowed them to assure extremists in their political base they had fulfilled a campaign vow.
So much for a long day of public policy and all its confounding, infernal and inconvenient truths.