With a group of Texas House Democrats returning to the floor of the statehouse in waves over the past week, my mind keeps going back to the epic “Man in the Arena” speech by Teddy Roosevelt.
The speech, which Roosevelt gave in 1910 while touring Africa and Europe after leaving office in 1909, is actually called “Citizenship in a Republic,” and was attended by military officers and hundreds of students at the Sorbonne in Paris.
It is, no doubt, one of the best speeches ever given by a president or political candidate, and entire passages of it have lived on in the imaginations of generations of aspiring candidates and political staffers.
I wonder if those Texas Democrats who found their way to helping Republicans restore quorum have been allowing themselves to riff on the text, to convince themselves that they are returning to the arena to fight for greater glory.
It is not the critic who counts, said Roosevelt, and perhaps these folks have been steeling themselves by reciting those opening words. Maybe they’ve convinced themselves in the romantic notion that their struggle is symbolic of the perfecting of our union. That they’re guided by some sense of principle or divine purpose.
But sadly, in this instance, they’ve turned people like me into their critics. I am the party faithful. I have worked on political campaigns all over Texas and the country because I bought into the idea that we have to fight to make this world a better place, and that fight starts right here at home.
While their feet may be on the House floor, sadly these folks don’t seem to recognize that they’ve left the arena. They’ve now confined themselves to a different category of public life and service, a sort of political purgatory that they should have seen coming when they reached the fork in the road.
At the moment where our party and movement met its biggest struggle, the choice was as clearly defined for these folks as it was Roosevelt, who closed that epic speech with the thought that, for me at least, defines who these folks proved themselves to be. These state representatives may see themselves in the beginning of the passage when Roosevelt defines who is worthy of the credit that those critics are not:
“…but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Those cold, timid souls. That’s all I see when I picture the Joe Moody’s, James Talarico’s, Ana Hernandez’s, and Armando Walle’s.
The choice before them was to fight to the end or give way to Texas House Republicans, a group of politicians so obstinate that they’ve proven time and time again that they aren’t interested in negotiation or compromise. They won’t even allow amendments on the bills before the legislature.
They chose timidity instead. They chose a handshake deal to try to keep their districts, or committees, or whatever sweetener was on offer to sell out our right to vote.
They may keep their districts and win their primaries, and Texas Democrats may still find a way to prevail in the face of what I believe is a genuinely evil attack on American democracy.
But if they do prevail, if we protect and strengthen the right to vote and keep this great American experiment alive a little bit longer, the triumph will never belong to them. They won’t truly know how that victory feels, because they’ll be left to face the cold, hard truth that when the rubber hit the road, they tried to play ball instead of trying to stand and deliver for Texas families.
Now, let’s be honest, our resistance since the quorum break hasn’t been perfect. There have been mistakes and miscalculations, miscommunication, and blunders. But Roosevelt speaks to that, too, in his epic speech.
“Because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.” We are human beings after all. There will be errors, we will fall short. But the remedy isn’t submission, it’s to continue to strive. To do the deeds.
Our work isn’t done. Texas House Democrats won’t find any glory in an arena they’re only entering to forfeit. It’s time to embrace the moment we’re facing and fight like hell. It’s time Texas Democrats learn the art of whatever it takes.