The catastrophic failure of Obamacare has caused a widespread feeling of schadenfreude among Republicans everywhere, who are all well entitled to one of the most satisfying “I told you so” moments in American history, even as they suffer the expense effects of the law along with everyone else, but the exhilarating sense of vindication is especially sweet for Republicans here in Kansas.
More significant calamities are sure to come, but thus far the most widely acknowledged failing of the new health care boondoggle is the thoroughly botched computer system and general bureaucratic bumbling that has been unanimously blamed on former Kansas Governor and current Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Her ineptitude in implementing the ambitious reform of one-sixth of the economy has been so stark that even such reliably supportive satirists as The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart and the wags of Saturday Night Live have been piling on with their ridicule, and no less a purveyor of conventional wisdom than The Hill has dubbed her “the laughingstock of America.” Kansans are by now well-accustomed to having one of their own be the laughingstock of America, sometimes for valid reasons and sometimes for reasons having more to do with the rest of the country’s absurd prejudices, but it is a rare pleasure to have the Kansan in question be a Democrat. When the Democrat in question is Kathleen Sebelius, it’s all the better.
Kansas is a mostly Republican state, after all, and from Alf Landon to Dwight Eisenhower to Bob Dole most of its native sons and daughters who have achieved sufficient prominence to be a national laughingstock have been Republicans. Having the laughs directed to one of our Democratic minority is a refreshing change of pace, and all the more so when it one of the party’s locally beloved figures. If you’re not a true-blue Kansan or a true-blue Republican, and it’s not quite possible to be one without being the other, it’s hard to explain how very mellifluous is the laughter being hurled at Kathleen Sebelius.
It’s hard to explain, for that matter, how Sebelius ever became governor of this state. To begin with you must understand that also Kansans have very rarely sent Democrats to Washington they have a stubbornly contrarian way about them that doesn’t mind sending one of the danged fools to Topeka every now and then. Anti-tax and pro-life Democrats in particular have a history of winning occasional gubernatorial elections in the state, which has the undeniable benefit of keeping the state’s politics competitive enough to limit the complacency and corruption that characterize one-party jurisdictions, and once or twice in the average Kansan’s lifespan there might be even be a Democratic majority in the state’s House of Representatives for a single term. One also must understand the schisms within the state’s Republican party to understand how the likes of Sebelius ever won the governorship.
Prior to Sebelius the state had been guided for two four-year terms by the blissfully unobtrusive hand of Gov. Bill Graves, a successful trucking magnate who was handsome in a distinguished and silver-tinged sort of way and preached free enterprise, kept the occasional crony-capitalism eco-devo deal coursing the legislature, and pursued a more-or-less limited-government agenda that also limited the government’s intervention in such matters as abortion. Kansas survived such governance in pretty good shape, as far as most Kansas were concerned, but a more fervent portion of Graves’ party found it too weak a Republican brew and its fervor managed to win the nomination for a more full-throated champion of traditional social values and free enterprise. The nominee was easily caricatured as a Bible-thumping zealot by Kansas’ liberal-as-anywhere-else media, the reform rhetoric spooked the state’s well-connected Republican establishment, and the Democrats shrewdly nominated Sebelius as the more moderate and reasonable alternative. She was handsome in a distinguished and silver-tinged sort of way, and although a relative newcomer to the state she was the daughter of governor in her native land of Ohio, so there was an aura of competence about her. After decades of Republican occupation of the Insurance Commissioner’s office had led to the inevitable complacency and corruption of one-partly rule Sebelius had won the post, and acted with an anti-corporate bias that was widely perceived as populism, so she also had a plausible record of public service to run on. Throw in a professionally-run campaign financed largely by out-of-state contributions and the usual corporate suspects, along with the unease many of the moderate sorts of Republicans felt about the fire-breathing challenger, and Sebelius was elected by less than a landslide but more than a squeaker.
The first four years of Sebelius’ governorship were barely noticeable, which can be attributed her politically-savvy instincts and the seemingly good health of the national economy, but after that led to her re-election she seemed to be auditioning for a role in the national party. Kansas was suddenly surprised to learn that it had re-elected a rather doctrinaire Democrat as governor, and in addition to a number of liberal initiatives Kansas further enraged the state’s Republican sensibilities by using the tragedy of a tornado that virtually wiped out the tiny town of Greensburg to criticize the Iraq war. Her claim that the town had been denied necessary state assistance because of the war’s use of state National Guard equipment was baseless, and enraged even formerly supportive Republicans, but it endeared her enough to the national party to win a plum cabinet appointment during her second mid-term after the president’s first pick for Secretary of Health and Human Services fell victim to a tax-evasion scandal.
The ostensible promotion was widely expected by the state’s Democrats to be a boon to both her and the party at large, but thus far it doesn’t seem to have worked out that way. She was replaced by her Lieutenant Governor Mark Parkinson, a former state Republican chairman who had left the party as a result of his estrangement with the social conservatives and his ambition to be governor, but after two years of tax hikes and nanny state initiatives he bowed out of pubic life. For the sake of full disclosure we divulge that Parkinson is a friend of ours since high school, and that we once spent a summer painting apartment buildings together and we are also quite fond of his parents and eccentric B-movie-producing brother, but we also came to admire his smarts and they were very much in evidence when he declined to run against former Sen. Sam Brownback, also an old friend of ours and a fire-breathing social conservative and staunch opponent of Obamacare, who would have easily trounced any Democratic rival after eight years of a Sebelius-Parkinson reign.
Meanwhile, back in the rarefied air of Washington and the national scene, Sebelius is now an officially-designated laughingstock. The apparent failure of the Obamacare program that she had been chosen to implement will prove a textbook example of the failure of the “smart government” she had claimed to represent, and the big government philosophy she had so long denied, and the very antithesis of that represented by Gov. Sam Brownback seems likely to win re-election handily. As bad as the damage from Obamacare will be, a Kansas Republican can’t help feeling that some good might come of it.
— Bud Norman