In August, Abbott’s position, per a spokesman, was that “Private businesses don’t need government running their business.” But in October, that line had morphed into an untenable locus due to the federal government’s edicts.
The order triggered a fault line within conservative circles — not so much created anew as exposed one already there.
That fault line divided some of Texas’ most prominent conservative voices, often passionately. At the argument’s core is a predicament of first-order questions such as government’s role in private business’s affairs; public or private entities’ role, if any, in involving themselves in an individual’s personal health decisions; and the dividing line’s locus between appropriate state action and personal responsibility of the individual.
Well, chicken, meet egg.
One of Texas’ most prominent conservative radio hosts, Dallas’ Mark Davis, staked his flag against Abbott’s move. On CNN’s Prime Time with Chris Cuomo, Davis said, “[Abbott’s order] calls to mind a certain consistency in the conservative mindset of what government’s role should be in business decision-making, and to my mind that role is as little as possible.”
“Joe Biden is wrong to tell companies that you must have a vaccine mandate, and governors from Abbott to DeSantis are wrong to tell companies that they cannot,” he added. “I am as much of a business and economic liberty guy as much as I am an individual liberty guy.”
As with many political issues, one guiding principle often conflicts with another. Davis’ position leans heavily on the autonomy of an individual over their private property — the right to set the rules for entry and use of the property, and in this case, their business.
This concept is generally accepted when it comes to policies such as “No shirt, no shoes, no service.” But vaccination, which is something that cannot be observed by those in proximity and must be disclosed with personal information, is substantially different.
Matt Rinaldi, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas (RPT), holds a different position. Well before Abbott issued the order, the RPT called for the across-the-board prohibition.
“Vaccine mandates are unjust, they’re bad for society, and they should be banned,” Rinaldi told The Texan. He further added about Davis’ business and economic liberty versus individual liberty framing, “Individuals are more important to me than large corporations. Also, Mark is assuming that you have a fully competitive market here, where there’s ease of entry and exit and a functioning competitive market for labor.”
“What we have instead is a very small number of large corporations acting in concert with what the government’s asking them to do.”
Rinaldi then questioned the difference between these corporations complying with the government, and the government itself setting the mandates. “By the way,” he added, “there’s a political system that we have a name for where corporations and the government are acting in concert: fascism.”
Had the federal government not dictated the policy, Rinaldi said it would be evidence that the market was functioning. But that is not the case, he contends.
“We’ve reached a point in our society where government has become so intertwined with corporate America, that corporate America’s existence depends more on pleasing the government than pleasing customers,” he added.
Rinaldi then took issue with this being the final straw of government regulation of businesses. “Every single person in that legislature,” Rinaldi said, pointedly toward Davis’ line of argument, “ratifies thousands upon thousands of business regulations every day, but this is what offends him?”
Another prominent Texas radio voice, Chad Hasty of Lubbock, took exception specifically to the method by which Abbott issued his prohibition.
“Ruling via executive order, if we weren’t for when the governor shut down businesses, why are we for it now?” said Hasty in an interview with The Texan.
“I look at the future and think, what happens if you do have a Governor [Beto] O’Rourke and we’ve set the precedent that [governing by executive order] is okay then the Democrats are going to say that climate change or gun violence is worse than COVID.”
Pointing to Abbott’s pandemic emergency actions, Rinaldi said the precedent has already been set for a Governor O’Rourke to act in whatever fashion he wants. Additionally, it is no small part of Rinaldi’s job to prevent a Democrat from taking that office.
Part of Abbott’s action late in the third special session included tasking the legislature with issuing its own prohibition, a charge on which it did not deliver before the close of the session on October 19.
Hasty said that he’d prefer such a prohibition to be issued by the legislature than by the executive, but his opposition remains.
On the question of setting precedent, Rinaldi said that the train has left the station. “We had that fight last year when Texas was being shut down, and the people who oppose governing by executive order lost,” he said.
“So yes, now that we are doing things this way, I absolutely favor doing good things by executive order.”
Rinaldi compared it to a hypothetical conservative reform of Obamacare through federal law and opposing it on the basis of the 10th Amendment limiting Congress’s purview. He emphasized, “That ship has sailed and we might as well make things better with the tools we have.”
Asked about how to restore that limited role, Rinaldi said, “If both sides would like to sit down and restrict that power, I would be absolutely in favor. But the legislature also declined to do that.”
Hasty also questioned the timing of Abbott’s order. “Biden announced his executive order a month ago, why was this not important for the governor and the legislature then when the governor issued the ban on public entity mandates?”
Rinaldi, both during his time as RPT chair and before his ascension, has called for a private vaccine mandate prohibition well before Biden’s order was issued.
Hasty also said he understands the arguments for the order, namely that “this is the last line of defense against the Biden administration’s dictate.” But he pointed to other states, such as Arizona, that haven’t issued the private business prohibition but have sued the White House.
The philosophical direction of the Republican Party, which right now has an ironclad grip on Texas, finds itself being pulled in two directions on this issue of vaccine mandates and responses thereto.
Abbott’s contradiction, not only on this specific issue but also on the fair-weather propriety of executive action, is muddying the waters even more. Davis, Hasty, Rinaldi, and those of their ilk are left to try and piece together some semblance of guiding philosophy moving forward.
And there’s no shortage of disagreement.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.