Kansas Comes Through

All in all, it was a delightful day in Kansas on Saturday. We had to be up at the ungodly early hour of 7:30 a.m., and after a long drive back from the funeral of a much-loved family member at that, but the weather was about as perfect as early March ever provides around here, and we got to boo to Donald J. Trump in person and shake the hand of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and by the end of the day the quadrennial Kansas presidential caucuses and the democratic process itself had once again proved great fun.
The festivities began at 8 a.m., which we attribute to the Kansas Republican Party’s still lingering farmer tendencies, as well as the necessity of wrapping things up before the University of Kansas Jayhawks and Wichita State University Wheatshockers played their conference tournament basketball games, and we made the miscalculation that sleeping through the time it would take to brew our requisite two cups of coffee would compensate for their stimulative effects, but we somehow safely somnambulated ourselves out of Riverside and over to the fortunately nearby Century II building downtown. Some old New Journalism instinct told us to be there early, so after we wasted some time waiting in a line that turned out to be for a Trump rally in one of the circular building’s other pie-shaped segments we we soon found our way to the entrance to the caucus’ much larger pie-shaped segment, which was shared with the local youth symphony practice going on in an adjacent pie-shaped segment, so all sorts of fresh-faced kids with cello cases and trombone-shaped luggage were in the same long line with a bunch of grizzled farmer-looking Republicans, but it turned out to be well worth the short wait to receive the yellow sticker that would allow us to cast a ballot. Kansas has all those photo identification requirements that the Democrats are always squawking about, and our Secretary of State is the nation’s most infamous advocate of these outlandish measures, but it was all computerized and quite cheerily transacted by the friendly people in the “volunteer” t-shirts, and we have been duly registered as Republicans since our long-ago eighteenth birthday, so we were quite quickly and efficiently welcomed into the comforting embrace of Kansas Republicanism at its most cornily old-fashioned best.
On our way in we encountered a very fine fellow who’s an old fraternity brother of one our actual brothers and is now chairman of the county’s Republican party, and we were quite circumspect about sharing our preferences in the race, which turned out to be the same. Then we ran into a woman who was campaigning for a candidate in a local statehouse race, and although her candidate was in a district more unfashionably west-side than our own she had an elongated and skinny off-beat beauty that reminded us of Shelley Duvall, and she rightly pointed out that at least we know some people in that unfashionably west-side district, so we stopped to chat with her as well. We also ran into the most delightful fellow who books the speakers for the local Pachyderm Club, who cajoled us into accepting another invitation to address that august meeting of downtown Wichita Republicans, and one of our old friends and favorite penny-pinching County Commissioners, who laughingly noted that we’re not in his district but are represented the only guy in town who makes him look like a squishy RINO establishment guy, which doesn’t bother us a bit. By the time we took our seats in the pie-shaped Republican segment of circular Century II in the third century of the American age, we felt quite at home.
There was a video by the mayor, who is officially non-partisan but generally understood around here to be a Republican, and then our County Commissioner friend filled some time with a Kansas political quiz, which we did well with, and the Lieutenant Governor weighed in via video, and our delightful friend from the Pachyderm Club made a pitch for his monthly meetings, and the head of the Black Republicans in town gave a rousing oration and a kid with skinny jeans and a modern architecture haircut spoke well on behalf of the local College Republicans, and there was a pitch on behalf of Republican Women by another friend of ours who’s the ex-wife of a even better friend of ours. Then some local high school Marine junior-ROTC kids right out of a Norman Rockwell painting presented the colors, our local don’t-dare-you-doubt-his-Republicanism congressman led the assembled electorate in a Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a prayer from a local pastor, and that was followed by a memorable rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The two-male, two-female quartet from a local church knocked the familiar tune out of the park and had the crowd singing along through the familiar “and the land of the free and home of the brave” ending, which brought the expected roar, but they kept singing through that second verse that is so unfamiliar no one could sing along, and it got another big roar when it ended with the same closing lines.
This was followed by a long and soporific delay due to the long lines still waiting to get past such a friendly and efficient and computerized process, filled with some mostly godawful contemporary country and western music, but we eventually got around to the good part about the candidates.
Our local don’t-dare-you-doubt-his-Republicanism congressman, whose Republicanism we do not doubt, had the burden of speaking on behalf of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who had made a touch-and-go appearance in town the day before, which did not fare well at all with the anti-establishment crowd. We’ve met our congressman on a few occasions and found him a most genial fellow, and have only the minor and admittedly arguable quibbles with his voting record, and given the easily accessible chumminess of Kansas Republican politics we must plead guilty to being part of some ill-defined “establishment,” and we’ll take Rubio over some options, but even we weren’t buying the pitch.
Speaking on behalf of the anti-establishment terror Cruz was the man himself, and as much as we hate to resort to cliches we can’t think of anything to say but that he electrified the crowd. He took all of his allowed ten minutes and at least a couple more to go point by point over the things that have infuriated the sorts of Republicans who get up at 7:30 a.m. and probably even earlier than that to be there for the extended “Star Spangled Banner” at a Republican caucus even on the best sort of March day you can expect, and there was a rhetorical flavor to it that we’ll call “evangelical,” and suffice to say that we were not the only ones on our feet at its conclusion. By our estimation at least two-thirds of the crowd were waving “Choose Cruz” signs, and sporting the same sticky slogan on their clothes and chanting his name, and at that point we didn’t need to await the exit polling.
Up next on our local hinterlands stage was none other than Donald J. Trump, the self=described billionaire real-estate-and-gambling-and-strip-joint-and-professional-wrestling-and-realty-television-and-scam-university mogul, the man who has been unavoidable in the news for the past year or so, and he seemed rather puny. Perhaps he’d been lured to our hick town by the couple of crazy polls that showed him leading here, and the fact that Kansas’ electoral Republicanism entitles it to more delegates than similarly-sized states in more benighted regions, but by the time he hit the stage in downtown Wichita he seemed realize he was facing a hostile crowd. The boos were far louder than the cheers, and the candidate’s bluster was far less than usual. He did boast about the big crowd he’d drawn earlier, few of whom had made their way into the area where the race was going on, and he talked the usual bit about how he was going to hire the best people and do great things, but his heart didn’t seem in it, and the towering media figure looked rather small on that stage, and with hometown pride we can report that he left to more boos than cheers.
There were other candidates on the ballot, but none had bothered to schedule a speaker, so those of us who’d gotten in early were quickly able to cast our ballots and get out. While Trump was speaking we ran into a good friend from the church where we worship, and he showed us the digital pictures of himself and his lovely daughter and handsome son-in-law shaking hands with Cruz, and he told us how he got the candidate’s attention by shouting that his wife, a most delightful woman who had the good fortune to escape from Baghdad to America, had come all the way from Iraq to vote, and how Cruz had seemed genuinely humble when meeting her. As we wandered by the blocks-long line of voters who didn’t get in on all the fun we passed by Cruz, and joined the scrum of voters to shake his hand and wish him well, and we walked away feeling that no matter what awful consequences the American political process might provide at least we were part of it.
On the way back to our car, which was parked due to our early arrival in a spot that would be coveted when the rest of the Republicans and all the Democrats and the folks going to the Home and Garden Show and the youth symphony kids made downtown more crowded than usual, we passed by a couple of homeless guys who were wondering about the blocks-long line of people over on Douglas. We explained that the Kansas caucuses were going on, and added that we’d had a chance to boo Donald J. Trump in person, and one of the homeless guys insisted on giving us a fist-bump over that, which made us feel a part of an even broader American experience. After a frequently phone call-interrupted nap we headed out to Kirby’s Beer Store, a favorite ghetto dive of ours, where all our hipster friends were celebrating Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ anti-establishment victory on the also well-attended Democratic side of the race.
Cruz’ already-called victory in the Kansas Republican caucus had not at all surprised us, given the anti-establishment mood of such established Republicans as ourselves, and the fact that the same caucus which routinely chooses the most conspicuously Christian candidate is not likely to choose a thrice-married and boastfully adulterous gambling-and-strip-joint mogul who mocks the handicapped and blames his perennial tax-audit problems on his being such a strong Christian, and neither were we surprised with Sander’s victory here. The state’s minority of Democrats have all the crazy ideas associated with their party, but they’re heirs to that Prairie Populist tradition that had such crazy ideas way back in the days when the railroads and the Sears Roebuck Company were the Koch Brothers and Wal-Mart of the time, and they have an anti-establishment streak of their own that we can’t help but respect. We had a friendly beer and a nice conversation with an extravagantly homosexual friend of ours who has a knack for rational political discussion, and he shared our concern that Hillary Clinton is at least as awful as Trump on a personal integrity level and that he’s on the other side of a racial divide in his party, and despite all jibes about the “Choose Cruz” sticker on our jacket we enjoyed the beer.
The Kansas results only contributed to a split decision on the day, with Cruz winning also Maine but Trump more narrowly winning in Kentucky and with a lot of help from early voting in Louisiana. Trump still has a delegate lead, although not overwhelmingly, and the voting in all the states seems to have narrowed it down to a two-man with Cruz, whose numbers have been outperforming expectations lately while Trump’s have seemingly stalled, but the upcoming states are very different from the prairie and the outliers still hanging around the race figure to be a factor, and we don’t know what to expect from the rest of the country. Kansas came through, at least, and so did our Okie cousins, and for now the process at least affords some fun.

— Bud Norman

As the Primaries Turn

The latest episodes in the competing mini-series about the election of the next president have lately taken some interesting twists. Over in the Democrats’ show there is suddenly speculation whether the front-runner will soon be indicted on federal charges of endangering the national security, while on the Republican channel the front-runner is openly speculating if his most troublesome rival is legally eligible to be in the running. Both plot twists might yet prove red herrings, but at least they provide an amusing distraction from all that boring talk of stock market meltdowns and North Korean bomb tests and the usual unpleasantness in the Middle East.
There has long been a tantalizing possibility that former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton might be in legal jeopardy for using a personal and unsecured e-mail account to conduct her official State Department business, and to many it seemed all the more tantalizingly possible after former United States Attorney and current cable news pundit Joseph DiGenova went on a popular conservative talk radio show and confidently predicted that the combined outrage of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the government’s broader intelligence community would force Attorney General Loretta Lynch to bring charges. DiGenova’s predictions have often proved prescient, he’s known for having reliable sources in the FBI and the intelligence community, and Clinton’s e-mails sure do look like a clear violation of the law, and her claims that there were no classified documents on the “home-brew” server she kept in a shady company’s bathroom have already been revealed as blatant lies, so it’s at least plausible. The counter arguments from the more skeptical pundits that President Barack Obama’s Attorney General is going to bring charges against the Democratic party’s presumptive presidential nominee no matter what evidence some disgruntled executive branch employees might muster are also plausible, though, so at this point we offer no predictions.
Some slight surviving shred of faith in the American government allows us to hold out hope that FBI Director James Comey will live up to his ruggedly independent reputation and his boast to Congress that he “doesn’t give a rip about politics” in the investigation, and we’re by now cynical enough to wish that Obama’s pettiness and self-centeredness will allow him to allow his Attorney General to play some Chicago style politics with his erstwhile rival, but neither lead to any conclusions. We will venture that anything short of an indictment won’t alter the Democratic presidential nomination race, where Clinton’s most troublesome rival has already declared that he’s “sick and tired of hearing about her damned e-mails,” but we would like to think that a full revolt by the FBI and the intelligence making clear how very political a non-indictment is would have some effect on a general election.
The general election will co-star a Republican, though, and at this point it seems likely that he or she will have her or his own problems to deal with. Still ahead in all the national polls is billionaire real estate mogul and reality show star Donald Trump, but he’s lately feeling enough heat from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz that he’s unleashing his famously scathing criticisms on the rival. He’s even suggested that Cruz, born to an American-born mother and Cuban-born but naturalized-American father, might not be eligible for the presidency because Cruz was born in Canada during his parent’s brief career-related stay there. Such birthplace chatter is as old as the presidency of perhaps-Canadian-born Chester A. Arthur, and has persisted through the presidential campaigns of Mexican-born George Romney and Arizona Territory-born Barry Goldwater and Panama Canal Zone-born John McCain right up to the current president, who Trump had previously and unconvincingly claimed was born in Kenya, but it hasn’t yet kept anyone from winning the presidency. Cruz cheekily responded to the speculation, which didn’t quite rise to the level of an outright accusation, with a “tweeted” clip of that infamous “Happy Days” episode where Fonzie jumped over a shark, a sly pop cultural reference that should suffice to put the matter to rest.
We note that Trump has also questioned Cruz on theological grounds, telling an audience of Iowa Republicans in advance of that state’s Christian-dominated primary that “you’ve got to remember, in all fairness, to the best of my knowledge, not too many evangelicals come out of Cuba, okay?” Whether a thrice-married casino magnate can successfully persuade evangelical Iowans that he’s more their type than a once-married Baptist with a perfect pro-life voting record and no ties to the gambling industry and the same anti-communist heritage as beloved sit-com character Ricky Ricardo remains to be seen, but we do have our suspicions how that might turn out. Trump has also proposed a 45 percent tariff on all Chinese goods, which would raise the price of an average shopping trip to Wal-Mart by approximately 45 percent and start a global trade war with little prospects of victory, but that also seems a desperate gambit.
The bomb-throwing and government-shutdown-threatening Cruz is every bit as infuriating to the Republican establishment as Trump, whose rise to the top of the polls has largely been fueled by an understandable anti-establishment sentiment among Republicans, and Cruz is perhaps even more beloved by those bellicose talk radio talkers who have further fueled Trump’s rise, so Trump’s sudden turn against him is not unexpected. We don’t expect it will hurt Cruz in the Republican primaries, but it provides some fodder for a whispering campaign by the Democrats in the general election, even if they aren’t afraid to say it more loudly for fear of reviving the old rumors about Obama’s Kenyan birth or a sense that Democrats just don’t like “the other,” and we’ll nervously watch how it plays out.
If the presidential race turns out to be a match between a convicted felon and a constitutionally-ineligible foreigner, we’ll be rooting for the constitutionally-ineligible foreigner.

— Bud Norman

Oh-High-Oh

The good people of Ohio will vote today on a referendum called Issue 3, which would legalize both medical and recreational marijuana use and confer a legal marijuana-growing monopoly on the  small group of wealthy investors who have largely bankrolled the public relations campaign for its passage. This is quite the dilemma for certain types of both conservatives and liberals, but we expect that even the most addled Buckeye potheads will be able to figure out that it’s a bad idea all around.
The more sober of the libertarian sort of conservatives will have to weigh their aversion to legal monopolies on anything against the prospect of legal weed, while the more fervent sort of liberals will have weigh their enthusiasm for both legal weed and legal monopolies against their aversion to small groups of wealthy investors getting rich on anything, and it will be interesting to see how they both choose. The social conservatives won’t find anything to like in the deal, of course, and those Democrats honest enough to admit they don’t mind a good public-private sweetheart deal so long as the state gets its cut won’t find anything wrong with it. So far as we can tell about the ideological composition of the Ohio electorate, this means the referendum could come down to the pothead vote.
If so, any hookah-huffing Ohioan should consider the question from a self-interested perspective and realize that a legal monopoly is always unlikely to meet his demand with a reliable and high-quality and cost-efficient supply better than the currently illegal and thus entirely free market. Should the referendum pass those tax dollars that are tempting even the straightest sorts of voters will be added to the price of a bag, monopolies tend to raise prices further yet, regulators regularly get involved to stifle innovations and further raise prices, and eventually there is a certain wistful nostalgia for the good old days of Prohibition and the friendly unincorporated neighborhood speakeasy and that old neighborhood hippie who always had The Allman Brothers playing during a deal. Given that almost nobody gets jailed for simple possession of small amounts of marijuana anymore, unless they happen to have some on them when they get busted for a more serious crime and have it added on the charges for the sake of plea bargain negotiations, an otherwise law-abiding marijuana enthusiast would not be better of if the referendum were to win.
We won’t be surprised if it does win, though. Public opinion has slowly crawled to a bare-majority support for legalized marijuana, those promised tax dollars are always tempting to voters, by now pretty much everyone knows someone who uses marijuana that they don’t care to send to jail, and such outrageous cronyism and corruption and convoluted capitalism as Issue 3 represents can be sold as responsible regulation of some ineradicable problem. Gambling used to be widely considered a social evil, and was as strictly forbidden as marijuana ostensibly remains in most jurisdictions, but the lure of tax dollars and the pervasiveness of gambling and the promises of sensible regulation have resulted in legal monopolies on “gaming” within a short drive of almost every American. We’ve got a big Indian casino just a few miles of high-speed Interstate south of our own very conservative city, although the office basketball pool and the weekly poker games in the buddy’s basement and the craps games that are said to still flourish on South Broadway remain as illegal as ever, and that referendum passed with the support of all the local business groups as well as all the liberals who hate every industry except the one that does nothing but separate suckers from their money.
All the local offices are still having basketball pools and the same old married guys are still sneaking away to weekly poker games and South Broadway will always be South Broadway, even if the big Indian casino south of town does draw a significant share of the local gambling market, and we expect that a similar legal arrangement regarding the marijuana market will yield similar results. We know a fellow who lives in a remote mountain town in Colorado where there are seven legal marijuana shops to serve a town with a year-round population of 2,300, and we take his word for it that most of the local vipers still patronize the same unlicensed and untaxed and unregulated and downright illegal dealers they bought from before “legalization.” Those promises of tax dollars won’t be kept, the promises of responsible regulation will prove even more overstated, and the inherent problems of an illegal market that can’t call the cops to resolve a grievance will remain.
If Ohioans decide not to send anyone to jail for smoking marijuana that will be fine by us, and neither will we worry if they choose to retain the current laws and continue to enforce them with the usual laxity. We hope they won’t decide on some middle ground that makes it legal for one person to sell the stuff but continues to make it illegal for others, though, as that sort of two-tier legal system does not serve the purpose of democracy and there is way too much of that going on already.

— Bud Norman

On the Importance of Making Welfare More Fun

On those frequent occasions when the elite eastern press wants to explain the benighted nature of those unwashed rubes in that vast electoral red splotch in the middle of the country, they usually come here to Kansas. The state almost always has a Republican legislature, and these days it even has a governor who obligingly conforms to all the nastiest stereotypes of middle American Republicanism, which allows the likes of The Washington Post to frighten its more sophisticated readership with such headlines as “Kansas wants to ban welfare recipients from seeing movies, going swimming on government’s dime.
Underneath a file photo of some presumably welfare-dependent people happily plunging into an enticingly blue swimming pool on a presumably  hot Kansas summer day, the ensuing article leads with unmistakeable outrage that “There’s nothing fun about being on welfare, and a new Kansas bill aims to keep it that way. If House Bill 2258 is signed into law by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) this week, Kansas families receiving government assistance will no longer be able to use those funds to visit swimming pools, see movies, go gambling or get tattoos on the state’s dime.” To add the horrors that are being visited upon the Kansas poor, the article further notes that the bill “means limiting spending on body piercings, massages, spas, tobacco, nail salons, lingerie, arcades, cruise ships or visits to psychics.” Worse yet, according to the increasingly outraged article, the bill also “forbids recipients from from spending money at a theme park, dog or horse racing facility, parimutuel facility, or sexually oriented establishment which provides adult-oriented entertainment in which performers disrobe or perform in an unclothed state for entertainment, or in any business or retail establishment where minors under age 18 are not permitted.”
Lest you think that The Washington Post and its sophisticated readership regard swimming in the rare Kansas swimming pool that charges an entrance fee, watching the latest Hollywood offerings upon their immediate release, gambling, tattoos, body piercings, massages, spas, tobacco, nail salons, lingerie, arcades, cruise ships, psychics, theme parks, gambling on horses and dogs, and adult-oriented entertainment in which performers disrobe are all fundamental human rights a respectable state is obligated to subsidize, and that being on welfare should be fun, be assured that they offer a more nuanced argument against the bill. Even in Kansas they were able to find a Democrat in the legislature who groused that “I just think that we are simply to saying to people, ‘If you are asking for assistance in this state, you’re sort of less than other people and we’re going to tell you how and where to spend your money.'”
Maybe we’ve been living in Kansas too long, but it seems to us that the bill merely restricts how welfare recipients can spend the taxpayer’s money. Should any welfare recipient choose to take a job or swing a lucrative meth deal he would still be able to swim, watch movies, get pierced or tattooed, enjoy a spa or smoke, get his nails done, dress up in lingerie, listen to the dubious predictions of psychics, visit an arcade, gamble on the dogs or ponies, swill cocktails on a cruise ship, ride roller coasters, gamble on the dogs and ponies, or ogle naked entertainers to his or her heart’s content. The article also scoffs at the idea that Kansas’ poor are spending their meager alms on cruise ships and such luxuries, in which case the bill will not affect them at all, and it links to yet another  article arguing that it’s blatant hypocrisy to limit what welfare recipients might spend the taxpayer’s money on when property tax-paying home owners aren’t obliged to prove that they’re not running brothels out of their homes in order to qualify for federal tax exemptions, which is a bit too nuanced for us to wrap our Kansas minds around, but we’ll add our own link and let the reader make up his own mind.
Being on welfare in Kansas might not be as much fun as The Washington Post and its sophisticated readership think it should be, but with the price of wheat being what is and the aircraft industry still struggling under the current administration’s opprobrium the Kansas taxpayer who is expected to pay the tab surely deserves some consideration.

— Bud Norman