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Kansas, Back in the Middle of the Country

The Republicans’ seven year quest to repeal and replace Obamacare is currently as dead as a proverbial door nail, and likely to remain so for a long while, so for now the party is mostly concerned with apportioning the blame. Many of the fingers are pointing at our beloved Kansas’ very own Sen. Jerry Moran, and from our wind-swept perspective here on the southern great plains that suggests the party has some hard-to-solve problems.
Moran and Sen. Mike Lee of the equally blood-red state of Utah simultaneously “tweeted” on Monday that they would vote “no” on the Senate’s repeal-and-replace bill, and with Sen. Susan Collins from deep blue Main already voting “no” because of the bill’s stinginess and Sen. Rand Paul from the hard-to-define shade of red Kentucky objecting to its largess, that that was two Republican votes too many for the bill to survive. On Tuesday Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, also from that complicated Kentucky, floated the idea of simply repealing Obamacare with a promise to replace it with something so great it will make your head spin within within two years, but Collins and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of the reliably red state of Alaska and Sen. Shelley Moore Caputo of the West Virginia, which is only recently red but with all the fervor of a new convert, joined together to put the kibosh on that. All will be blamed for the party’s failure to get something passed, but we suspect that many of their colleagues are quietly grateful for the favor.

The Senate bill was polling so horribly it had actually made the hated Obamacare bill popular, which was more than President Barack Obama’s oratorical flourishes and outright obfuscations ever achieved, and every sort of Republican also had some objections. It wasn’t the root-and-branch repeal-and-replacement that the Republicans had been promising since every single member of the party had voted against the damned thing those many years ago, and retained many of the poll-tested but economically unworkable provisions of Obamacare that are currently driving up premiums in a politically potent number of states and congressional districts, so the conservative arguments were hard to refute. The bill also included significant cuts to Medicaid and other entitlement programs, and when Vice President Mike Pence tried to deny that at a governor’s conference several Republican governors politely explained he was flat wrong, and given that they and all those wary Republican congressional members are all polling much better in their home states than either President Donald Trump or his senate there’s no arguing with the political logic.
All politics is local, as the old proverb put it, and as Kansans we sympathize with how complicated that must be for Moran. Ever since the abolitionists came here to fight the Bleeding Kansas pre-civil war the state’s tended Republican, and except for the landslide elections of ’36 and ’64 it’s voted GOP in every presidential races and has only once sent a Democrat to the United States senate, but of course it’s more complicated than that. Those abolitionists were upright establishment New Englanders with high-minded ideas about good government, and of course they were also religious zealots and unabashed radicals, always facing the harsh reality of making a honest living on treeless plain, and those various forces still inform the political debate around here. They were later joined in the party by Swedes and Russians and Germans and the black Exodusters fleeing the slavery of the south, but the party remained in steadfast opposition to the Democrats and the even crazier Prairie Populists and in disagreement about everything else.
For the most part the moderate factions always prevailed, standing firmly against the most radical Democrat ideas but willing to embrace a certain amount of good government. The party generously funded the state’s schools, kept the roads between all the small towns paved, locked up the occasional mass murderers and other criminal types, paid the salaries of all the pointy-headed professors at the regent universities, and provided for widows and orphans. Kansas has always provided fertile soil for a more ruggedly individualistic style of conservatism, though, and it has also exerted an influence on the party.
When the election of President Barack Obama unleashed some of the Democratic Party’s more radical ideas back in ’08 the state was at the forefront of the “Tea Party” reaction, with pretty much the entirety of the Republican Party on board. All of the state’s congressional delegation, including then-First District Rep. Moran, voted against Obamacare and the rest of the Democratic agenda, and the conservative outrage trickled down to the rest of the state’s politics. By ’10 the Republicans in Congress and the statehouse who were deemed insufficiently rocked-ribbed faced primary challenges, the successor to Democratic-governor-turned-Obama-cabinet-secretary Kathleen Sibelius was replaced by the exceedingly rock-ribbed Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, and when some of the Republicans in the state legislature balked at his tax-and-budget-cutting proposals they were largely replaced by primary challengers.
When Brownback relinquished his Senate seat to run for governor Moran beat out the more “Tea Party” Fourth District Rep. Todd Tiahrt in a hotly contested primary, and a couple of years later the curmudgeonly conservative but by-now-establishment Sen. Pat Roberts barely survived a primary challenge from an even more curmudgeonly conservative political neophyte who was related to Obama on the Kansas side of the family tree, but the conservative and anti-establishment faction of the party was clearly in control.
Since then, however, the moderate and establishment wing of the Grand Old Party has been making a comeback. Brownback and Roberts and all the rest of the party won re-election in the nationwide Republican wave of ’14, but by then it was clear that Brownback’s theoritically-sound but admittedly radical tax-and-budget-cutting proposals weren’t spurring the economy and balancing the books as predicted, and that after so many rounds of cuts the schools and roads and prisons and the rest of the states business were bound to be affected, so suddenly the establishment moderate types were winning the primary challenges. Enough of them won in the last election that they were able to join with the Democrats to recently override Brownback’s veto of a tax increase. Tax increases are anathema to a Kansas Republican’s soul, but so are unbalanced budgets and uneducated schoolchildren and unpaved roads and unpunished criminals, and in Kansas as elsewhere politics is complicated that way.
Which is pretty much the complicated place that Moran found himself when he decided to cast a “no” vote that he surely knew would invite plenty of pointing figures, here and in the rest of the Republican precincts of the country. He and Lee shrewdly timed their announcements so that neither could be blamed as the guy who cast the fatal vote against repeal-and-replace, both reasonably explained that a “yes” vote wouldn’t have fulfilled their campaign promises of a root-and-branch repeal and replacement, and both surely have other unstated more moderate reasons that make an undeniable political logic.
Once you get outside the big bad city of Wichita and the trendy suburbs of Kansas City or the booming college town of Lawrence and the recently-recession-plagued state capital of Topeka, Kansas is mostly a scenic but sparsely populated expanse of rapidly aging small towns with a dwindling supply of rapidly aging people. In many of these locales, which are still quite charmingly all-American, the main driver of the local economy and the most crucial local institutions are the local hospitals and old folks’ homes, largely funded by Medicaid, and despite what Vice President Pence says on behalf of President Obama those Republican governors with the healthier poll numbers are probably right about the Senate bill. For all the economic harm Obamacare is doing to the healthy young hipsters of Lawrence and the family guys commuting back to the Kansas City suburbs and the factory guys here in Wichita, we can hardly blame Moran for not wanting to face the wrath of all those paid-up geezers in the rest of the state.
If Moran wants to cynically claim conservative principles to justify his more moderate political instincts, we’ll not blame him for that the next time he’s up for reelection. After a half-century of proud Kansas Republicanism, which instinctively stretches back to the abolitionist Bleeding Kansas days, we’ll not fault a guy for insisting on anything less than an root-and-branch repeal-and-replacement bill, and that a truly free market would have cared for those old folks in those charming small towns, and until then we’ll also figure we have to take care of them somehow.
All the rest of the Republican votes that killed the Republican dream probably have their own local logic. Trump won Utah by the same usual Republican margins that he won Kansas, but he finished a distant third in both state’s Republican primaries, and his polls numbers aren’t sufficient to scare Republicans in many states. The three senators who took the stand against repeal-only are all women, each of whom were excluded from the behind-closed-doors writing of the bill, which is one of the many very stupid things that McConnell did during the failed process, but we credit each of the ladies with more sensible local political reasons for their “no” votes.
Go ahead and blame them all for wrecking the Republicans’ seen-year quest, as they willingly volunteered for the finger-pointing, but from our perspective here on the southern plains there’s plenty of blame to go around. Trump arm-twisted enough House Republicans to pass a bill that he later “tweeted” was “mean” and lacking “heart,” never gave any major speeches with oratorical flourishes or outright obfuscations on behalf of the similar Senate bill, and not even such sycophants as Sean Spicer or Sean Hannity can deny that he didn’t made good on his campaign promises of universal coverage and lower costs and no cuts to Medicaid within 100 days of his inauguration. If you’re more inclined to blame McConnell and the rest of that GOP establishment that Trump vowed to burn down, well, we can’t readily think of any excuses for them.
Those treasonous turncoats might have saved the Republican Party from passing a wildly unpopular bill that set off another round of wave elections, though, and given the party a chance to go slowly according to old-fashioned good government principles and get things right, which is more than those damned Democrats ever did. That’s what we’re hoping for here in the middle of the country, at any rate.

— Bud Norman

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Health Care and the Waiting Room

Republicans have been waiting for seven years to repeal and replace the hated Obamacare law, and it looks as if they’ll have to wait a while longer. The Senate’s majority leader has postponed a vote on a Republican alternative until after the summer recess, which will likely include some encounters with constituents that won’t make them any more eager to take up the matter when they return.
The Republicans have a president in the White House and a large majority in the House of Representatives and a slight majority in the Senate, the same advantage the Democrats held back when they rammed Obamacare through without a single Republican vote, but their revenge was never going to come easy. That Republican president ran on promises of no cuts to Medicaid and coverage for everybody, that House majority is largely comprised of more doctrinaire conservatives, and slim Senate margin includes both doctrinaire conservatives and more pragmatic sorts of Republicans from purplish states. Although they all ran on promises of repeal and replacement, the Republicans never did agree on what that should look like.
Back when the Democrats had the House and Senate and the White House they were all in general agreement on the basic principles that the government should be interfering more thoroughly in the health insurance market, consumer choices should be restricted, and more government spending should be allotted, so they had an easier time getting their bill passed. Even with a president boasting approval ratings in the 60s and plenty of support from support from the establishment media, however, the Democrats took until just before Christmas and had to resort to some bare-knuckle politics to ram through what was already an unpopular law.
Although the eponymous President Barack Obama won re-election three years later, the Obamacare law was unpopular enough that it was largely responsible for a Republican president and Republican majorities eight years after his supposedly transformative election. Such are the consequences of ramming unpopular legislation down the public’s throat on a strictly partisan vote, along with all the skyrocketing premiums and punitive mandates and other pains that have been inflicted on so many Americans, so the Republicans should count themselves luck for the delay.
Obamacare remains unpopular yet, and even its more honest defenders are admitting that some serious tweaking is required, both the House bill that was passed after an embarrassing delay and the Senate bill that’s currently delayed are polling far worse. Both cut back on planned increases in Medicaid, and they not only don’t cover everyone but leave an estimated 22 million looking for other options in coming years, and there’s no getting around that the tax implications tend to favor the wealthier taxpayers, so the politics is at least as tricky as the policy.
To our old-fashioned Republican way of thinking both the House and Senate bills represent a slight improvement on Obamacare, but come nowhere near the long-promised full repeal and replacement, we expect that whatever compromise version they might reach and pass on a partisan vote will prove unpopular enough to arrive at a Democratic president and a Democratic majority in at least one house in just three years or so. There’s a conservative case to be made for the the Republican bills, and a conservative case to be made against them, but the Republican president who promised no cuts to Medicaid and coverage for everyone and the free-market ideologues and the more pragmatic sorts of Republicans seem likely to persuade the public.
All of them promised their voters something like a repeal and replacement of Obamacare, though, and all of them are itching for something they can call a legislative win. We hope they get it, but we hope they take their time about it, and come to some agreement on the true principles that underlie a free and efficient health care system, and make that hard-to-explain case to the American people, and use the impending implosion of Obamacare to get recruit a couple of symbolic Democratic votes. They’ll probably take some short-term hits for that, but it’s the best plan for the long run, which will take a lot of time.

— Bud Norman

A False but Accurate News Conference

The following transcript is not an an actual White House news conference, and is instead something we dreamed up for the recent “Gridiron” show, but we offer it in a belief that it has a greater verisimilitude than the real thing. Also, we’re busy with chores and friends’ personal problems and have no energy for that ridiculous New York Times story on income inequality, so in the interest of the environment we’re going to recycle.
CHIP WILSON: Hello, I’m Chip Wilson. Jay Carney is taking an extended leave of absence in order to grow a real beard, and in the meantime I’ll be the acting White House Press Secretary. Do you have any questions?
REPORTER ONE: About Obamacare …
WILSON: I’m sorry, but let me interrupt you right there. This is just my first day on the job, and I was hoping I wouldn’t have to deal with Obamacare. Does anybody have a question about something other than Obamacare? No? Damn it. Well, OK, what was your question?
REPORTER ONE: The president said that under Obamacare people the average American would be paying less for his health care insurance than his cell phone bills, but instead most people are seeing rate increases. Isn’t this another broken promise?
WILSON: I can assure you the president is working hard to keep that promise. He’s already proposed legislation that would drastically increase the average American’s cell phone bill. If our do-nothing Congress won’t act on this pressing matter, you can hardly blame the the president.
REPORTER TWO: What about the president’s promise that “If you like your health care plan, you can keep you health care plan”? Millions have already lost their coverage, and millions more will when you finally get around to enforcing the employer mandate.
WILSON: I think you need to go back and check that quote. You’ll see that what he actually said was “If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan, period, end of story.”
REPORTER TWO: How does that make it better?
WILSON: Well, where I come from, “period, end of story” is generally understood to mean that you won’t be able to keep your health care plan.
REPORTER TWO: Where do you come from?
WILSON: I come from the post-modern world, pal, where words can mean whatever the hell you want them to mean. What hick town do you come from?
REPORTER THREE: You say that eight million people have signed up for Obamacare, but can you tell us how many of them have actually made a payment?
WILSON: I’m sorry, I don’t know.
REPORTER FOUR: Can you tell us how many of them previously were covered, but lost their plans due to Obamacare?
WILSON: I don’t know.
REPORTER FIVE: Can you tell us how many wound up on Medicaid?
WILSON: I don’t know.
REPORTER SIX: Can you tell us how many of them are the young, healthy people with no need for these comprehensive plans that you need to make this boondoggle work?
WILSON: I don’t know.
REPORTER ONE: Why don’t you know?
WILSON: Trust me, you don’t want to know.
REPORTER TWO: The law is currently being challenged in the courts by the Little Sisters of the Poor, who can’t understand why they’re being compelled to pay for contraceptive coverage. How do you respond to that?
WILSON: The Little Sisters of the Poor, as you know, are a notorious street gang that oppose everything this administration does because of the threat we pose to their nefarious traffic in prostitution and narcotics.
REPORTER TWO: Actually, it’s an order of nuns who provide care to the indigent elderly.
WILSON: A perfect cover, don’t you think?
REPORTER THREE: What about the report from the Congressional Budget Office that more than two million Americans will leave the labor force rather than taking a low wage job that would force them to relinquish their Obamacare subsidies?
WILSON: These fortunate people have been freed from the bondage of work. Do you want them to be wage slaves? Of course not. And what makes wage slaves? Wages, that’s what. Thanks to the miracle of Obamacare, these Americans can now devote their energies to more creative pursuits. We’re expecting a veritable renaissance of macrame and beer can sculpture.
REPORTER FOUR: Despite these assurances, all the polls show that most Americans disapprove of Obamacare.
WILSON: The administration is hard at work on that, as well. We’ve launched a multi-million dollar advertising campaign to to convince Americans they do approve of Obamacare. We’ve got some NBA stars, some healthy and pretty young models, and we’re in negotiations with that “Flo” woman from the Progressive ads.
REPORTER FOUR: And you think this will make Americans approve of paying more for less?
WILSON: Well, we believe that if the public can be persuaded to watch mixed martial arts fighting and the “Real Housewives of Haysville,” they can be persuaded to do just about anything. They did vote for my boss twice, after all, and he’s not nearly as likable as that “Flo” woman from the Progressive ads. Also, we’re counting on you on the media to help out in the effort. I mean, come on, it’s Obama.
(Reporters all murmur their general agreement.)