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A Relatively Close Call on the Plains

That wasn’t a windstorm that blew through Kansas on Tuesday night to blow away all the smoke from that controlled prairie burn, but rather a collective sigh of relief by the state’s Republican Party. The Fourth Congressional District remains in the loving hands of the GOP, despite a confluence of circumstances that made it harder than usual.
State Treasurer Ron Estes wound up beating attorney and political neophyte James Thompson in the special election to replace Mike Pompeo, who left his seat to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency, albeit by less than seven percentage points. That might seem a comfortable margin in some districts, but it’s a 25-point drop from Pompeo’s victory last November, and it took a big chunk of last minute media money from the national party and a visit by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and robocalls from the President and Vice-President to salvage that. It’s close enough by Kansas standards to give Democrats some hope in more traditionally competitive districts, and inspire a similar nervousness among the Republicans.
Neither party should read to much into it, though, as there were the predictable all-politics-is-local factors that likely won’t be replicated elsewhere. Kansas’ Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is currently the least popular governor in the country, being hated with a red-hot passion by all the Democrats and having spent the past six waging a civil war on the more pragmatic sorts of budget-balancing Republicans who are still quite numerous around here, and for some reason party poo-bahs in the district chose a candidate from his cabinet. Special elections are typically low-turnout affairs every, so when it happens where a highly energized Democratic base and Republican base that isn’t at all enthused by its candidate and no longer frightened by the prospect of President Hillary Clinton or Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is bound to tighten a race.
Estes lacked Pompeo’s stellar credentials and polished appeal and ran an awful campaign, forgoing the usual retail campaigning and skipping debates and constantly running a much-ridiculed ad where he’s wearing waders and standing in a swamp full of alligators and snakes and a harmless-looking turtle. The opponent ran an unusually shrewd campaign, using plenty of shoe-leather at all the obligatory greasy spoon meet-and-greets and showing up at every debate, and his ads took care to mention his military record and show him firing off rounds the very same “assault rifle” that the last Democratic congressman we had here a few decades had foolhardily voted to ban, and for a Democrat a projected a very regular Kansas guy image, and although his party establishment proved stingy he still fired up the base enough to get sufficient small donations to blanket the local airwaves and internet connections with it. Republicans can hope that future candidates won’t repeat the same mistakes elsewhere, and be confident that few Democrats will allow themselves to be seen firing semi-automatic weapons.
Certain sorts of Republicans will tell themselves that President Donald Trump’s last minute intervention turned the tide from what was rumored to be a late polling deficit before that last minute money-infusion, and all sorts of Democrats will be hoping that Trump was largely responsible for that 25 point drop from a mere four years ago, but they’re both only partly right, and the way it played out here doesn’t predict anything about any other race around the country. Trump carried the district by 27 points, but that’s five less than Pompeo’s winning margin and no better than what any old Republican presidential nominee could expect, and he finished a distant third to Cruz in the caucus voting, so absent that terrifying prospect of a President Hillary Clinton there’s not much enthusiasm for him around here. He does have his fans, though, many of them the types who wouldn’t ordinarily be voting in a low-turnout special election if not for a presidential robocall, and the more pragmatic Republicans types who always vote even in April aren’t going to let Trump’s endorsement change their vote one way or the other. We don’t think that Democrats can expect a 25 point drop in any other district due to Trump, as it probably didn’t happen here, but we will allow that there was a certain Trump-related enthusiasm gap here that Trump and the lack of a Hillary Clinton-esque villain had something to do with it.
Any Democrats searching for nuggets of hope from the race should dig deep into the district’s peculiar demographics, and take note that Thompson did wind up winning Sedgwick County, which includes the 50th most populous American metropolitan area of Wichita and most of the district’s voters. He didn’t win it by nearly enough to offset the ass-kicking he predictably suffered in the sparsely populated agricultural counties to the east and west and south, but even a slight edge here should offer encouragement to discouraged Democrats. In a regular election year Wichita’s a reliably Republican city, certainly more so than your usual top-50 American metro area, but pretty much every single ethnic minority and homosexual and college professor and beatnik poet and dues-paying union member and every other statistically-inclined-to-vote-Democrat sort of individual in the district lives here, and as the pundits say it “looks like America” more than the rest of the district, for better and worse. The city’s ethnic make-up and levels of educational achievement and annual income and television viewing habits and consumers preferences are so close to all the national averages that it’s a popular test market, which oddly puts our unfashionable hometown on the cutting edge of commerce, so even in a special election even a slight Democratic win here is something both parties should ponder.
The Democrats should consider finding candidates who shoot guns and act like regular guys and take care not to give offense to the God-fearing white folks when they’re out shaking hands at greasy spoons, even as they fire up all the ethnic minorities and homosexuals and college professors in the base, but they’ll probably go full Bernie Sanders. The local Republicans should remember that just four months ago they easily won Wichita and a whole lot of those ethnic minorities and homosexuals and college professors and dues-paying union members with such as a well-credentialed and polished and uninvolved in the Republican civil war candidate as Pompeo, but they’ll probably conclude that even in a special election beset by the worst complications they can still win by a nearly seven point margin no matter who they put up, and of course Trump will conclude that he saved the day.
We got some free eats at both the Estes party at the Marriott Hotel way over the east side as well as the Thompson party at an old joint just up from The Lord’s Diner on North Broadway, and it was interesting to note how both parties were pretty much exactly as you might stereotype them, and how both were rather ambivalent about the results, but we can’t say we learned anything. Come to think of it, we do’t suggest either party try to draw any conclusions except that nobody seems very happy here in the demographically representative heart of America, and they both need to do better.

— Bud Norman

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The Anger on the Left

Just the other day ago or so we were composing an admittedly angry yet sincerely jocular essay about the most recent Democratic presidential debate, and with some literary license we described a fantastical world where the candidates frankly admitted their plans to guillotine the handful of nefarious and unnamed billionaires who are standing in the way of their otherwise easily obtainable utopia of social justice. We thought it an amusingly Swiftian exaggeration of the sore and sorry state of modern liberalism, but once again the more humorless and literal reality of the fact-based press has overtaken our most ambitious attempts at satire. The latest news from The National Review, which is still considered a far-right publication by the left but is now regarded as a stuffily establishment press by the even angrier further-right, and is still as always a reliable factual source, finds a Missouri Democrat who is a happy to be quoted that he’s “OK” with “bringing back the guillotine” for the benefit of a few billionaires, and that he also doesn’t mind naming which ones he has in mind.
That’s just one cherry-picked quotation, to be sure, but we don’t doubt that even in this cold and barren winter there are plenty of cherries on the trees to be picked if that’s what it takes to convey how very angry these liberals are these days. That Missouri Democrat was weighing on behalf of the embattled University of Missouri “professor” of “communications” who was caught on video “rounding up some muscle” to evict a student journalist from public space that had been illegally seized by a “Black Lives Matter” protest on her campus, which is understandably angry about the black lives lost to wrongful police conduct but somehow sanguine about the far greater number of black lives lost to the un-policed rampant in too many black neighborhoods, and which has spawned similarly acrimonious protests over Halloween costumes and ethnically incorrect Asian cuisine on the cafeteria menu and various other “micro-aggressions” among the most prestigious and pampered student bodies, not to mention all the angriness about that “culture of rape” that has has somehow spread from the church-going redneck jurisdictions to the liberal domain of academia, and there’s been plenty of quotable angriness to go around. That’s just the college kids, too, and you should hear what the more hard-strapped high-school-drop-out wing of the Democratic party and its post-graduate Starbucks baristas are muttering about these days. We hear them all too often, given the sorts of dives where we go to watch ‘Shocker games and hear rock ‘n’ roll shows and to catch up on the latest events with a gray-ponytailed hipster but more or less conservative friend of ours, and it somehow exceeds even the angriness we find when in the relative comfort of our right-wing extremist friends.
It’s mere anecdotal evidence, of course, and we further concede we run in some atypical circles, but in our experience the talk of revolution and even guillotines is not uncommon and often seems more than rhetorical among liberals. We still recall the lithe and comely young hipsterette at a local dive who expressed her eagerness to fight it out in the streets with such nasty Republicans as ourselves, the countless comments by politically correct guests at locally swank cocktail parties about how certain Republican women weren’t really women at all, and all the threateningly indignant comments by the most unexpected people about how Bruce Jenner really is a woman, although maybe not because he or she might be a Republican, and all the things confessed in in honesty before the speaker realized when we were one Them, not to mention that a self-described socialist’s call for “revolution” is currently threatening the liberal “establishment” candidate at a time when that label is as odious to the left as it is to the right.
This seems peculiar from our geographical and ideological perspective, where our grievances are stated from a long-fixed position and can thus be objectively measured by the dangerous distance our country has been dragged leftward over the past seven years, but even in our anger we try to be empathetic. Those angry folks on the left are judging events by the distance of their ever leftward-drifting hopes against the evermore elusive reality of the socially just Utopia of their dreams, and they’re still so infatuated with the hopes of the change that the past seven years would bring they can’t help look for scapegoats and demagogues, and as always there are plenty available on both the left and right, so we try to be understanding enough to avoid any thoughts of guillotines.
We caught the first half of an important conference ‘Shocker game at a notorious dive just across the street from the local university and on the edge of a very rough part of town, and were reminded of the times when one of the more annoying regulars the was disappointed to learn that we don’t want Donald Trump executed or, at the very least, tortured, and further surprised to learn that we didn’t even wish execution or torture on President Barak Obama, and that we merely wished them both happy lives outside the sphere of public influence. Given the current rhetoric on both sides of the political spectrum, we’ll give that psychopath some benefit of the doubt. We were somewhat hearted by a brief conversation with an old friend of ours, a delightful woman and locally legendary hard-rock drummer who is currently featured in an all girl punk trio with of her longtime best friends’ daughters, and although that single and hard-working and hard-rock drumming woman was coming from the Democratic side of the demographic divide she seemed to share our hope that some sort of center will hold. She agreed with us that the Democrat’s “establishment” candidate should probably be jailed in some humane prison, and that our party’s “anti-establishment” front-runner should be banished to real estate investments and reality television, and we both admitted that our hopes aren’t high even for our necessarily angriest anti-establishment candidates.
Although we hold out faint hope that the future of our Republic will be favorably decided at the ballot box by an informed public choosing between red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism and the compassionate Judeo-Christian tradition and a stifling socialistic bureaucracy and all that insistent post sexual-revolution social justice stuff, we acknowledge it will likely come down to which side can best harness all the anger that is clearly brewing out there. We’re not at all certain how that might work out, and at this point we’ll settle for the center holding.

— Bud Norman

Segregated Media and Segregated Politics

Imagine our surprise when Pat Boone called us on the telephone Tuesday afternoon. We immediately recognized the famously mellifluous voice, but to avoid any possible confusion with some other Pat Boone he identified himself as “that ‘Love Letters in the Sand’ guy,” so we’re sure he was the real deal. It was only a pre-recorded and robo-dialed pitch on behalf of Republican Sen. Pat Roberts’ re-election campaign here in Kansas, so we didn’t get a chance to chat, but we appreciated the call.
The message stressed Roberts’ record on issues of importance to senior citizens, an important voting bloc and the only one likely to have heard of the octogenarian crooner, so we wondered if we’d been selected for the call because we’re presumed to be part of that demographic. In this high-tech age of marketing techniques political advertisements are tailored to appeal to very specific audiences, and we’d be slightly offended if the Roberts campaign has prematurely put on us on the senior phone list. We’re no spring chickens, and plenty old enough to use such an antiquated cliche, but we’re still young enough to prefer Little Richard’s raucous original rendition of “Tutti Frutti” to Boone’s more sedate cover version and aren’t yet benefitting from any of the federal largesse to oldsters that Roberts has apparently been protecting.
Those high-tech marketing techniques are well suited to the modern media landscape, which has been fragmented into a multitude of segregated niches. For years we have noticed the different political ads that run on the country stations, which have a good ol’ boy-sounding narrator touting some Republican or another’s staunch support for Second Amendment rights, and on the rap stations, where an Ebonics-speaking narrator warns that the Republicans are itching to gun down innocent black youths on the streets and can only be restrained by some Democrat or another, and now that there a gazillion or so cable television serving small slices of the public you’ll find the same method being applied there. If you log on to certain web sites you’ll likely be hit with certain sorts of advertisements, and on distinctly different web sites you’ll see a distinctly message. Sports magazines with a mostly male readership and fashion magazines with a mostly female readership consistently show similarly different political advertisements even when they’re touting the same candidate. If you’ve ever signed a petition opposing abortion your mailbox is probably full of fliers praising some Republican’s pro-life position, and if you inked an abortion rights petition it will be all about some Democrat’s enthusiasm for the procedure. We’re too old for texting and “tweeting” and the rest of the newfangled social media, but we presume that they are also being exploited with the same scientific specificity.
Mass buying occasionally pops a Democratic advertisement up on the Republican web sites we prefer, youthful hipsters such as ourselves get the occasional call from Pat Boone, and the inevitable ineptitude of political campaigns will also make the methods imperfect from time to time. An old school chum of ours is running for the state House of Representatives in our district and has an add running on the local right-wing talk radio station warning that his Republican opponent is intent on cutting taxes and state spending, and although we don’t support his candidacy we still like the fellow enough that we’re tempted to tell him his charges probably aren’t going to scare the typical Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity listener as intended. Somehow we have wound up on the mailing list of a local abortion rights group calling itself “Trust Women,” and the return address on their frequent envelopes always gives us a slight chuckle when we think back on a romantic history that has taught us to be just a bit wary of the fairer sex. For the most part, though, our politics are now played out in specific markets with a specific message.
None of which is conducive to a unified America. Rather than explaining what a candidate can do for middle-aged lesbian Latinas or gun-owning white twenty-somethings or cross-dressing tax protestors or whatever other group that might be watching a certain cable reality show or visiting a particular web site or signing some weird petition or another to chat up the comely young woman with the clipboard, a campaign should be making a case for what he can do for the country at large. The identity group politics that the modern marketing techniques seek to exploit, offering this or that preference or subsidy at the expense of that other hated group, are the cause of much of the country’s current and considerable troubles. The solution will require sacrifices from everyone, and needs to be explained in terms that can be crammed into a 30 second spot that could have run on the old Ed Sullivan Show back when everyone in the country was tuned in. That was back in the Pat Boone days, though, and we’re probably just pining for the old days like old men.

— Bud Norman

Two Brief Encounters on Hot Summer Nights

A hot summer night recently coaxed us out of the house and to the patio of a local watering hole, where we were pleased to encounter a dear old friend. We spoke of our families and friends and how work is going, debated whether we should care at all about the World Cup soccer matches, swapped some salty jokes, and mostly avoided what’s been in the news. When we inevitably mentioned our nagging worries about the way the world seems to be going these she waived off the topic by saying that she now concerns herself solely with friends and family and how work is going.
This seemed fair enough, especially after hearing the travails of her friends and family and workplace as well as some other very serious problems she has faced in the past months, so with a certain sense of relief we let the topic drop and moved on to an amusing discussion of our past romantic failures. Our friend is an effervescent and upbeat sort, a pleasant contrast to our more reserved and fatalistic manner, so we didn’t want to deny her a hard-earned blissful ignorance of the news that rest of the world is going to hell in a proverbial hand basket. Eventually the consequences of all those stories she’s been studiously ignoring will be felt by her friends and family and at her workplace, and will adversely affect her ability to solve the other sorts of problems that she’s lately faced, but in the meantime we see no reason should do anything about it other than keep a head up. Our friend is female, single, mostly unchurched, and fits all the other demographic and socio-economic categories that predict her biennial support for Democratic candidates and occasional enthusiasm for some bleeding-heart do-gooder project or another, so we didn’t want to encourage her to be politically active.
Better an apolitical attitude that concerns itself only with friends and family and work than the earnest idealism of the young man we encountered the next hot summer night on the patio at another local watering hole. We were engaged in our usual glum conservation about the events of the day with a gray pony-tailed right-wing friend of ours when when the young man at the next table interjected himself, quite politely and apologetically explaining that he couldn’t help overhearing our chat and that he shared our interests. He had an armful of tattoos and some up-to-date facial hair and one of those ear lobe-expanding devices that always remind of us old National Geographic photographs of the primitive tribesmen of the most remote regions, which is not atypical of the hipster clientele at that particular local watering hole, and when he introduced himself as a member of the left-wing “hacktivisit” group called Anonymous he drew our attention to his resemblance to the Guy Fawkes mask from the “V For Vendetta” movie used by that outfit.
He was quite unthreatening nonetheless, and we allowed him a lengthy discourse on his newfound solutions to all the world’s problems. He’s a poet for peace, as it turns out, and expects that his Facebook fan base will soon have the rest of the world on board. Most people would already prefer not to be killed in a war, he observed, and persuading the rest should be easy enough if the right poetry is applied. We noted that the Kellogg-Briand Pact had already made war illegal way back in 1928, and he was so excited by the news that he had us type the words into one of those palm-held gizmos that all the kids carry these days. Moving on to the world’s economic woes, he eagerly explained that people are forced to work by a corrupt corporate system that can be easily replaced by a new order in which people grow food and do favors for one another. Our friend with the gray pony-tail remarked that growing food sounds very much like work, and we had to agree, having picked enough peaches in our boyhood to know that agriculture is at least as arduous as poetry, and the young man replied that at least we wouldn’t be doing it for the profit of some corporation. Our right-wing pal wondered if the young man would be willing to mow his lawn and do some much-needed work on his home, and when the young man readily agreed to do so our friend asked why he should bother to get out of his hammock in the brave new world. The young man seemed genuinely befuddled why anyone would take advantage of such a well-intentioned system, and when our friend replied “Because I’m a jerk” the young man found it so amusing he offered to buy him a drink in exchange for the laugh. Our friend declined the offer, but we chimed in that we’d take him up on the offer and requested something from the Pabst corporation.
He still seemed quite unthreatening, but only because his schemes were so obviously ineffectual. Should his ideas about defying human nature ever take hold they will be as disastrous as all such previous attempts at remaking mankind have been, but we expect he’ll have to settle for the more slow-motion disaster that our apolitical single female friend votes for. We don’t doubt the sincerity of his desire for nothing other than peace and love, as even such grumpy old right-wingers as ourselves are in favor of both of those elusive ideals, and he had bought us a corporate-brewed beer, so we wished him well in his efforts. He seemed a nice enough kid, and we suspect that if he’d concern himself only with his friends and family and workplace and he might actually succeed in sowing some peace and love there. Perhaps his poetry might even accomplish some peace and love, but we doubt he’s so wise as William Butler Yeats, who was asked to contribute something to a poets-against-war anthology that somehow failed to avert World War I, and replied that “I think it better in times likes these that a poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth we have no gift to set a statesman right; He has had enough of meddling who can please a young girl in the turbulence of her youth, or an old man upon a winter’s night.”
Peace and love and poetry are worthy pursuits for a young man, and friends and family and the workplace are should be well attended to by everyone, but we think the other problems are best solved by the grumpy old men and women who best understand the failings of human nature. It would do us well to be pleased on a winter’s night, too, and perhaps our young acquaintance can tend to that. We hope our old friend fares well, too, along with her friends and family and workplace, but prefer her peace and love to her political solutions.

— Bud Norman