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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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Radical Islam By Any Other Name

“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet,” William Shakespeare once wrote, but he’s just another dead white male that nobody bothers to read these days. Modern liberals believe that words do indeed have magical powers that can alter whatever reality they are intended to describe. Thus a man can become a woman with a simple change of pronouns, a university can erase its long-ago racism with a few more up-to-date names on some buildings, the problem of illegal immigrants can be made to disappear simply by calling the millions of people who have immigrated here illegally by some more polite name, such as “undocumented Americans” or “dreamers,” and the latest euphemisms can imbue all manner of malodorous things with that sweet fragrance of moral superiority that keeps the modern liberals’ noses constantly upturned.
The latest problem to get this mystical linguistic treatment is radical Islam, which we are now assured does not exist. Although the semantic shamans won’t go so far as to pretend that terrorist attacks haven’t been occurring all over the world with increasing frequency and savagery in the past decades, and that there’s usually someone with a Muslim name shouting “Allahu Akbar” at the scene and a group calling itself something Islamic claiming credit,  they will go so far as to pretend that anyone who draws the intuitive conclusion that the Religion of Peace has anything to do with it is just a nasty old bigot. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to the staff of the American embassy in France just days after somebody or another shot up six sites in Paris for some reason or another, insists that “It has nothing to do with Islam. It has everything to do with criminality, with terror, with abuse, with psychopathism — I mean, you name it.” So long as you don’t name it Islam, of course, Kerry is content to deal with the problem on whatever convoluted language and new coinages you might prefer. His predecessor at the State Department, the supposedly presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, speaking just hours before some terror group or another for some reason or another killed all the hostages at a Mali hotel who could not recite verses from the Koran, went further to insist that “Muslims are peace and tolerant people who have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism.” Clinton was so proud of the statement that she “tweeted” it out to her followers, a surprising number of whom responded with scathing criticism, and the Democratic Party has already released an internet advertisement criticizing the Republican’s repeated use of “radical Islam” that features the formerly vilified George W. Bush saying that Islam is a Religion of Peace and we’re not at war with a religion and all the obligatory boilerplate that he never got any credit for back in the day.
So long as the shootings and bombings and stabbings and beheadings and crucifixions continue one will have to call it something, though, and Clinton has chosen to call it “jihadism.” It’s better than “psychopathism,” we suppose, but we can’t see how it’s a more politically correct term than “radical Islam.” Our big old Random House dictionary doesn’t have an entry for jihadism, but it does define jihad as “a holy war undertaken as a sacred duty by Muslims,” and our 13 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary are so old they offer the alternative spellings of jehad and jahad and define it as “A religious war of Mohammedans against unbelievers in Islam, inculcated as a duty by Koran and traditions,” and pretty much every etymologist will tell you that it’s a term having something to do with Islam. The more respectful but less precise lexicographers like to define jihad as a peaceful struggle to better one’s self, and for some reason they usually cite quitting smoking as an example, but even Clinton seems to have given up on that. The terror group calling itself Islamic Jihad, and the proudly self-proclaimed jihadists doing all the shooting and bombing and stabbings and beheadings and crucifixions, and such widely respected-within-the-Islamic-world scholars as the late Ayatollah Khomeini saying “I spit upon those foolish souls who make such a claim” that jihad does not mean a more literal war against the unbelievers has given the word a certain connotation that cannot be easily shaken, no matter how many well-intentioned Turks start laying off the hookah.
There are subtle and nuanced arguments to avoid the words “radical Islam,” as are required for such difficult sophistry. The gist of it is that by acknowledging the Islamic beliefs of the people we are obliged to fight and kill we signal to the entire Islamic world that we are at war with the entire religion, forcing all those more peaceful and tolerant Muslims who otherwise would be disinclined to shoot and bomb and behead and all that to join with their more belligerent co-religionists. This seems at least slightly plausible, given that all those peaceful warriors are probably already suffering the crankiness of nicotine withdrawal, but even the Democratic Party’s internet advertisements explicitly acknowledge that America’s leadership has always stressed how the country and its allies are only at war with those particular sorts of Muslims who are avowedly and actively and often effectively at war against us, and even such right-wing crazies as the Republican presidential candidates and ourselves are always careful to affix that “radical” qualifier to make the same point, so by now all those peaceful Muslims should be reassured. The term “radical Islam” does include the “I-word,” but we’re all adults here and might as well acknowledge the obvious fact the terrorists are acting in strict accordance with a very ancient and still widely-held understanding of Islam’s holy book, and surely those peaceful Muslims will frankly acknowledge the current struggle does indeed involve the more radical elements of their religion. One can argue that no true Muslim wants war, because Islam is a Religion of Peace, just as one can argue that no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge, because any one that did is no true Scotsman, but it’s still a fallacy and you’re still left with a large number of people who want to kill you in the name of Islam and don’t care how painstakingly polite you’ve been to the religion that you insist they don’t practice, and we suspect that by this point even some of the most peaceable sorts of Muslims are probably starting to contemplate which side is more likely to prevail.
Our reading of history suggests that the side with the high-tech weaponry and most modern scientific know-how is usually a good bet, but the side that knows what it’s fighting for and who it’s fighting against is often a formidable underdog. In the current conflict our side is fighting with itself over proper protocol for transgendered persons and that building named after a guy who built it but who owned slaves long ago and what to call all those immigrants who are here illegally, and we refuse to acknowledge that we’re fighting at against the same radical ideology that has been intermittently at war with the west for the past 1,400 years, long before there was western imperialism and Israel and George W. Bush and all the other usual exculpatory grievances, and which has always claimed to be Islamic. When a former Secretary of State and the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee is reduced that to claiming that it is merely “jihad” and therefore has nothing to do with Islam, it’s a good time for hedging bets.
If this all sounds too war-mongering and xenophobic and Islamophobic to your ears, we’ll happily recite all the rote assurances about the vast majority of the world’s Muslims being peaceful and tolerant and disinclined to chop off your head and take your daughter as a sex slave. We wish them well, and assume they wish us well in our efforts to defeat those who are committing atrocities in their name. People being people, though, we assume that there are some among the presently peaceable Muslims who are waiting to see how it plays out. Every strain of Islam has always found itself in conflict with some aspects of western civilization, and although most Muslims in the western world have found a peaceable and tolerant accommodation there are many who wouldn’t mind if the west were a little more accommodating itself. In some cases they might be making reasonable requests, in other cases intolerable demands, but Kerry and Clinton and all the political correctness in the world won’t keep them from contemplating a Muslim world. President Barack Obama contends that the Republican rhetoric about radical Islam is a recruiting tool for the terrorists, but the better recruiting tool for a potential pool of new jihadists is the string of victories they’ve lately racked up.
Clinton and her two rivals have both sworn off the term “radical Islam,” and of course the party itself is rallying to the cause with that internet advertisement, but it’s going to be a tough sale. The polls show the public unimpressed, even the vulgar late night comedian and usually reliable Democratic pitchman Bill Maher is scoffing at it, and thus far the biggest political beneficiary is the one candidate who doesn’t seem to care how war-mongering and xenophobic and Islamophobic he sounds. The magic words about men being women and Woodrow Wilson never having been president of Princeton University and illegal immigrants being dreamers aren’t polling well, and we don’t expect they’re going to win a war.

— Bud Norman

As the Republican Party Turns

The more politically obsessed news-readers have no doubt already heard that California Rep. Kevin McCarthy has withdrawn from the race for Speaker of the House, a position that was open following the resignation of Ohio Rep. John Boehner, and that it all bodes ill for the Republican Party. The “establishment” favorite McCarthy apparently has withdrawn, Boehner did indeed announce his resignation, and given how many things do prove to bode ill for the Republican Party that last part might also be true. Still, we’ll await the final outcome and assume that it won’t be consequential.
Much of the media has gleefully seized on the storyline that those crazily far-right and reckless “Tea Party” types in the party are in open revolt against the more cautious and accommodating and country club-going moderates that are still left, which is a fair enough assessment of the situation. All that gleefulness is because much of the media assumes that the public will be revulsed by those conservatives and their extreme positions, however, and we question the assumption. Boehner was driven to resignation and McCarthy was forced to withdraw from the race mostly because they were thought to be insufficiently resistant to executive actions throwing the borders wide open, unleashing an aggressively anti-business Environmental Protection Agency and nixing the XL Keystone Pipeline, negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran that will surely end up with nuclear weapons in that nutcase country, and various other affronts to conservative sensibilities, but none of these positions are so extreme that they don’t poll solid majority support from the public. There’s always the realistic hope they’d shut down the non-essential services of the government to get their way, which usually does not poll well, but even the most kamikaze sorts of conservatives wouldn’t do that late in an election cycle.
McCarthy’s departure was prompted by a boneheaded gaffe that will in the short term help the Democrats. Under fire from one of those conservative cable television channels, McCarthy boasted about how Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers have dropped as a result of the House investigations to the Benghazi tragedy. A better way to put it was that the Congress was committed to getting to the bottom of an important matter that involved the death of an Ambassador and four other Americans and that if the facts reflected poorly on Clinton so be it, but the in-artful phraseology seemed to confirm the Democrats’ preferred story that the Republicans are just out to get their poor woman. The same conservative pundits who had egged on the Benghazi investigation were quick to denounce McCarthy, his even more conservative colleagues in the House were happy to cite the quote as proof of his incompetence, his majority was in doubt even before the gaffe, and suddenly there’s much uncertainty regarding who will lead the Republican Party in Congress.
Although much of the media are serenely resigned to death and taxes, they have an affinity to anything uncertain. Such disorder as you find in the Republican Party of the moment is anathema to liberal sensibilities. Thus the storyline about sensible and moderate Republicans striving to stave off their more unruly colleagues will prevail, at least until the general election when those previously more sensible and moderate types are also portrayed as right-wing crazies, and the inevitability of Clinton’s scandal-plagued candidacy will be offered in soothing contrast, unless new marching orders are given on behalf of gaffe-prone Vice President Joe Biden. They might even pull it off, but it seems a hard shot.
Clinton’s poll numbers should go down as a result of the facts of the Benghazi tragedy, as well as the e-mail scandal that is closely related and all the other scandals she’s become involved in over her 30 years or so in the public eye, and we expect that will be more on the public’s mind come Election Day ’16 and that an in-artful attempt to placate a conservative cable television host by a little-remembered loser in a House Speaker will be long forgotten. Unless the Republicans wind up picking someone just awful as the Speaker of the House the whole episode will only be recalled by the most obsessive news-readers. Someone just awful is a possibility, of course, given the Republicans’ history, but it doesn’t seem likely. The most extreme conservative they might pick would still be on the winning side of all the big issues, the squishiest moderate they might wind up with
would still be far better than the last Democratic Speaker of the House, who was as far-left as a liberal might hope for and wound up giving the Republicans their problematic majority, and in any case some other issue will decide the next round of presidential and congressional elections.
There’s also faint hope the Republicans might do something right, and pick someone who can rally conservative support without provoking any futile confrontations with political reality. The name of Rep. Paul Ryan, who was once such a conservative hero that presidential nominee Mitt Romney picked him as a running to placate the base, but who has since become tarred with the “establishment” label, but he’s reportedly not interested in the job, which speaks well of him, and we have to assume that there’s someone in that Republican majority that’s up to the task. If they dispense with seniority and reject advice to let the Democrats in on it they could find someone that will help the party on Election Day ’16, and even then his or her name will probably not be widely known. Being obsessive news-readers ourselves, and suckers for any tale of intrigue, we’ll continue to keep abreast of the latest development nonetheless.

— Bud Norman

The New York Times’ Latest Anthropological Expedition Isn’t So Bad, After All

Very rarely do we have kind words for the New York Times Magazine, but we thought that its recent article on “The Kansas Experiment” was well-written, very even-handed, and remarkably free of the snobbish condescension that usually accompanies the paper’s reports on this part of the world.
As author Chris Suellentrop confesses in his charmingly confessional account, he’s not only a native Kansan himself, he’s also the loving nephew of State Rep. Gene Suellentrop, who is early on identified as “a partisan political warrior … if you’re a liberal, coastal, cosmopolitan sort, at best you see him as a deluded if well-intentioned peddler of what The New York Times’ columnist Paul Krugman has called ‘right-wing derp…'” The article concerns all the radical tax-cutting and budget-cutting that has happened in Kansas since Gov. Sam Brownback was elected along with a solid legislative majority of like-minded state representatives and senators who had ousted mostly more moderate Republicans, and the uncle was very prominent among them, so no matter how liberal and coastal and cosmopolitan the nephew might consider himself he does provide a fair hearing for both sides.
In fact, he goes into more rather detail than the average New York Times Magazine might need about Kansas politics. The gist of it is that Brownback and his allies significantly slashed taxes, with an emphasis on offering relief to businesses and a special emphasis on businesses moving to the state, slashed the budget by a smaller amount but enough to elicit squeals of agony from the teachers and university professors and their administrators and other affected interest groups, and promised that the resulting economic expansion would make up the difference. This did not happen immediately, shortfalls ensued, further budget cuts were proposed, more squeals of agony from the affected interest groups ensued, they wound up raising taxes on cigarettes and booze and couple of other things, found a couple of new cuts and filled in a couple of others. Those liberal and coastal and cosmopolitan readers of The New York Times would likely find that sufficient to conclude that Kansas has once again crazy, and although the Gray Lady has treated its readers to that very story on a few occasions already Suellentrop the Democrats and the last of the moderates to do their gloating, and he also gives Brownback and such allies as the author’s uncle a chance to make the case that there’s a lag between you when offer a tax break and somebody can get a tax-paying business up and running as a result, and he even lists the various factions within the Republican party and the strange deals that result with the small number of Democrats.
There’s some nice local color, too. The article’s portrait of Brownback as a strange combination of easy-going and easily-likable small town boy and a radical every bit as fire-breathing as John Brown is portrayed on the capitol walls strikes us as quite accurate, and we’ve known Brownback since we were Sen. Bob Dole’s interns together way back in ’78. He notes the state’s motto of “ad astra per aspera” and its long history of fomenting radical ideas, from abolition to Prohibition, its obsession with basketball in general and the intrastate rivalries in particular, the peculiar sound of Kansans’ voices, and he even throws in a reference to the Golden Bell diner over on the west side of Wichita. He’s got all the numbers down, too, and the mind-numbing minutia of the after-midnight wrangling that goes on in the extended days of a Kansas legislative session, complete with the teary speeches at 1:30 in the morning, and he accurately conveys the red-hot hatreds that result.
We might quibble with the conclusion, though. The author’s attempts at even-handedness are such that he finds the state’s final — so far — budget resolution a triumph of Kansas politics. He embraces the Democratic notion of higher taxes and more spending, credits the Republican conservatives with winding up voting for it and acknowledges that the Democrats’ cravenly political vote against it was an even greater betrayal of their principles, but this doesn’t quite convincing us that there’s no longer anything wrong with Kansas. The deal did work to the extent that Kansas isn’t Greece or Puerto Rico or Illinois, none of which, by the way, have any of the kind of right-wing crazies we have here in Kansas, but we’re not going back east and will have to live with it and are not at all satisfied.
Of course, no around here is at all satisfied. All our teacher and professor and newspaper-writing friends along with the rest of liberal pals continue to hate Brownback and his allies with that aforementioned red-hot hatred, and even those of us more favorably inclined to Brownback and his allies are disappointed. The budget cuts into education didn’t keep the state from spending more pupil than the national average and more than any countries except a couple of Scandinavian ones, more educational bang for the buck could have been achieved by dis-establishing some of the urban school districts and replacing them with a voucher system, the cuts to the regent universities probably would have forced them to fire some of their extraneous personnel and start lowering tuition rates, the Kansas Supreme Court justices insisting otherwise should all be removed at the next election, all that federally mandated spending on Medicare other bureaucratic compliance should be blithely ignored until the inevitable federal court rulings bring the hammer down, and sooner or later those tax cuts will show results and the alternative is Greece or Puerto Rico or Illinois.
We’re even more fire-breathing than our friend Brownback, though, even if we like to think ourselves just as easy-going and easily-likable, all the more so because we’ll have an occasional smoke and beer, and we’re not writing this for The New York Times’ Magazine. We have contributed to the times, on occasion, and know how very scrupulous they are about being even-handed, so that’s our only quibble with an otherwise fine article.

— Bud Norman

Bleeding Kansas Again

Our favorite right-wing radio station has lately been airing an attack ad against Dr. Milton Wolf, and it sounds as if the battle for the soul of the Republican party has once again come to Kansas.
Even if you’re reading this far outside the Sunflower State you might have already heard of Wolf, the Kansas City-area radiologist who is challenging Sen. Pat Roberts for their party’s nomination, if only because he is also a second cousin of President Barack Obama. He’s from the Kansas side of the family and is as severe a critic of Obama as you’re likely to find even among the most outspoken corners of the Republican party here on the prairie, so his long shot race against an entrenched incumbent has piqued some bemused curiosity from the national press. That Roberts apparently sees a need to dip into his campaign chest and reservoir of political capital with a response to Wolf’s numerous withering and widely-aired advertisements, however, suggests that something more significant than an extended family squabble is afoot.
The determination of the more conservative and combative Republican voters to rid their party of its more moderate and accommodating elements has figured in several important contests the past few election cycles, and been widely reported by a press eager to gloat over the occasionally catastrophic results, but when a politician such as Roberts finds himself among the plausible targets it is a new development. Roberts is not only as entrenched an incumbent as sits in Congress, he has also carefully cultivated a reputation for both conservatism and combativeness, so if he is vulnerable to a primary challenge it is hard to imagine anyone in the party who is not. The critique of Roberts’ career is also telling, and seems a template for the attempted reconstruction of the party.
So far as we can understand the rationale for Wolf’s candidacy, Roberts’ entrenched incumbency is the problem. Kansans and other small state denizens have traditionally regarded incumbency as an argument for yet another re-election, given the power of seniority to deliver pork in packages inordinate to the relatively puny size of our congressional delegation, but in an age of $17 trillion debt there is an understandable lack of enthusiasm among conservatives for pork and a reflexive suspicion of anyone that has been around Washington for the extended period of time it has been piling up. Roberts’ time there has been undeniably extended, starting when he arrived after brief stints in the Marines and journalism as an aide to Sen. Frank Carlson in 1967 and stretching through eight terms as the vast First District’s Representative before winning a Senate seat of his own in 1996, so at this point he can hardly claim to be an outsider. The charge has compounded by the revelation that Roberts no longer has a Kansas residence of his own, which is the sort of thing that Kansans quite resent, as gleefully reported by The New York Times, and we suspect that is the reason that Roberts is now taking to the airwaves with his own indignant charge that Wolf’s campaign contributions are coming from out of the state.
What’s missing from Wolf’s advertisements, however, are any substantive policy disagreements with Roberts. Although Roberts once presented himself as a pragmatically conservative politician in the style of Sens. Bob Dole and Nancy Landon Kassebaum and his mentor Carlson, back when the debt didn’t seem so worrisome and that sort of deal-making proficiency still struck most Kansans as good for business, but in recent years his voting record has been carefully in line with the more conservative mood of his constituents. Wolf’s pitch makes much of Roberts’ vote to confirm fellow Kansan and former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as Secretary of Health and Human Services, but that was before Obamacare was passed and since then Roberts has repeatedly demanded her resignation. Roberts was complicit in much of the profligacy of the Bush years, but Bush won landslide majorities of the Kansas vote in both campaigns and since the even greater profligacy of the Obama years Roberts has become reliably stingy. The media onslaught against the partial government shutdown and the Republicans’ intermittent debt ceiling squabbles have not deterred Roberts from voting with the Tea Party caucus on every occasion, and his public pronouncements on the controversies have been filled with all the crusty invective a Kansas conservative might hope for.
Perhaps Roberts has tacked so far to the right only because he held a licked thumb to the winds and noted which way they were blowing, but we’re not sure that such political savviness should be punished rather than put to good use. Given a choice between two candidates who would vote the same way in every instance, there is no compelling argument for the political neophyte with no chance at an important committee position rather than the shrewd veteran whose seniority ensures influence and whose cynicism insures ideological compliance. We share Wolf’s frustration with the establishment, and remain open to his arguments, but he hasn’t yet convinced us that we’d be better served with him as our Senator. Nor has he assuaged a nagging concern that his challenge could be a problem for the party.
Should Wolf win the primary we’ll happily vote for him over anyone the state’s Democrats might put up, we’d just as happily pull the lever for Roberts, and no one here seems at all concerned that a majority of Kansans will do the same, so the Wolf insurgency is unlikely in any case to affect the party’s chances of re-taking the Senate from the strangling grip of the Democrats. A similar restiveness in less reliably Republican states could unseat an experienced politician with a chance of winning and nominating an inexperienced amateur who will lose a winnable election with an another amateurish outburst, however, and the party can ill-afford such zeal. As much as we appreciate to the effort to build a more conservative Republican party, and wish it well in those states where the more conservative candidate can actually win, we would prefer that it reconfigure itself into something effective as well as ideologically pure. What does it profit a party to save it soul if it loses the world?

— Bud Norman

A Blast From the Past

Bob Dole was back in the news on Tuesday after an unnoticed long absence, earning a few final headlines with some pointed criticism of the Republican party, and it evoked a nostalgic feeling. The name still provokes strong feelings for everyone here in Kansas, where Dole dominated the political landscape for more than a generation, and for some of us it rekindles very personal memories.
Way back in the sultry summer of ’78 we were interns in the office of Sen. Dole, who had already achieved national prominence as the vice presidential candidate of the Republican party just two years before, and we remain grateful for the enriching experience. Among our fellow interns were two future governors of the state of Kansas, as well as several other soon-to-be eminent personages, so perhaps it didn’t enrich us as much as it could have, but it was a teenaged blast. We got to ride through Washington in a limo with the Senator, write a speech that he read verbatim on the radio, do a bit of pointless research, and get paid for little work and responsibility. The job also allowed us to enjoy his famously acerbic sense of humor, quake at his fearsome temper, and develop a generally favorable impression of his personality.
During our years working for a large state newspaper we crossed paths with Dole often, and it was almost always less pleasant. At one news conference during a minor scandal over a rather inconsequential violation of some obscure fund-raising regulation we wound up in a locally legendary spat with the senator, fueled by his characteristically personal animosity toward the paper, which had admittedly been making more of the story than was warranted, and by one biographer’s account we wound up getting the better of it. Dole never courted the Kansas press as assiduously as he did the big city papers back east, and we suspect he still holds the grudge.

He still got our vote in every race he ever ran, including the ill-fated presidential campaign against Bill Clinton in ’96, but that was mostly because he was running against Democrats. Most reporters were resistant to Dole’s charms because he was a Republican, and he probably assumed that his occasional disputes with us were for the same reason, but we were frustrated that he wasn’t nearly Republican enough. As the Fox News reporter noted in the recent interview, Dole was a longtime champion of the food stamp program, Social Security, and the Americans With Disabilities Act, and he was always willing to cut a deal with bigger government and fought hard against the Gingrich House’s efforts cut back. Although he could be admirably conservative on some important issues, and was always well to the right of anyone he ran against, Dole became an exemplar of the squishy moderate Republicanism that the party faithful are now rebelling against.
Which is what brought Dole back into the news on Tuesday. In an interview with the Fox Network he offered some mild criticism of President Obama for insufficient schmoozing with congressional leaders, but saved his harshest words for his own party. “I think they ought to put a sign on the national committee doors that says ‘closed for repairs’ until New Year’s Day next year and spend that time going over ideas and positive agendas,” he said, adding that the party has moved so far right that it wouldn’t nominate Reagan or Nixon today. For good measure he criticized the parliamentary maneuvering that has allowed the Senate Republicans to thwart several of the Democrats’ worst ideas, and called for the same sort of backroom deal-making that marked his own career.
It was infuriatingly nonsensical, especially the bizarre notion that the same party which nominated John McCain and Mitt Romney in the past two elections has gone too far right for Reagan, but it probably served Dole’s purpose of garnering some last favorable reviews from the purveyors of bien pensant opinion. Even before the interview we’d been hearing the local progressives lament the demise of the respectable Kansas Republican party epitomized by Dole, William Allen White, and Dwight Eisenhower, which they much prefer to the decidedly more rock-ribbed variety of Republicanism afoot everywhere in the state except the Kansas Senate, and Dole’s remarks will further endear him to these people. They hated him back in the day, of course, and always portrayed him as the arch-conservative “hatchet man” he’d been when he was the last Republican go to down on Nixon’s sinking ship and then as Gerald Ford’s stir-the-base running mate, but now that he’s safely in the past and no longer a threat to any Democrat he can be safely praised by his former enemies.
Why the 90 year old Dole still clamors for the approval of his enemies, rather than the respect of those disreputably right-wing Kansas who reluctantly supported him through his career, is less clear. Listening to the interview we were struck by very frail and aged Dole sounded, a stark contrast to the physically intimidating presence we recalled from his days in office, when he dominate any room he walk into just by projecting a palpable power that was only enhanced by the crippling injuries he had sustained during his heroic service in Italy during World War II, but he has neither mellowed with age nor hardened into the true conservative his admirers always wanted him to be.
Much respect is due to Dole for his service to the country in the past, but his counsel on the politics of the present should be rejected. There are no deals to be cut with the softly tyrannical quasi-socialism being imposed on the nation, no accommodations to be made that will fend off the impending insolvency of the national economy, and the Republican party has nothing to offer but the staunchest possible resistance. This won’t win the party any friends in the newsrooms of the big papers back east, but in the end they didn’t do Bob Dole any good, not when came down to him or a Democrat such as Bill Clinton, and such people are of absolutely no use in the current crisis. Dole’s fighting spirit is much needed, but he’s fighting the wrong people.

— Bud Norman

Remaking the GOP

Today is an election day here in Kansas, and at some point this afternoon we’ll finish our morning coffee and stroll over to the neighborhood Lutheran church to cast our votes in the Republican primary. It looks to be a good one.

All the action is on the Republican side of the ballot this time around. After almost four years of the hope and change thing the Democrats in these parts are so dispirited that they’re not bothering to contest many of the races, and they’ve even given up hope of retaining the coveted district attorney’s office that they’ve occupied for the past many years. They will apparently be running somebody or another for the fourth district congressional seat, but even our most die-hard Democratic friends can’t name any of the candidates and won’t even pretend that they’ll do any better than 30 percent or so in the general election.

There’s a lot going on in those Republican races, though. The primary is shaping up as an epic showdown in the longstanding internecine war between the moderates and the conservatives, with the future of the party and the state itself clearly at stake.

Although this is a notoriously Republican state, and has been ever since the abolitionist Republicans routed the pro-slavery Democrats back in the Bleeding Kansas days before the Civil War, the state’s government has never been nearly so conservative as its reputation would suggest. That’s partly because the state constitution hands a disproportionate share of power to a judiciary chosen by the lawyer class, and for some reason people always turn more liberal when they put on a black robe, but it’s mainly because the Republican party has long been dominated by the so-called “moderate” faction.

At least they used to be so called. This year they’ve taken to calling themselves “traditional” Republicans, much as the left re-branded itself “progressive” after “liberal” became a pejorative. Just as the left figured that no one is likely to be offended by progress, the moderates have calculated that tradition will have a greater appeal to the average Kansan than moderation.

In recent years the difference between a moderate Republican and a conservative one was defined in Kansas by the social issues, with the former taking a far more permissive stand than the latter on abortion and the currently respectable vices, but this year the most important distinction is about economics. The moderates are fond of an economic development policy heavy on tax abatements, subsidies, public-private partnerships, and similar crony capitalist schemes, while the conservatives want to cut taxes for everybody, eliminate any regulation that isn’t absolutely necessary, slash the state budget down to the barest essentials, and let the marketplace rather than the regulatory agencies pick the winners and losers. The conservatives have also stressed a promise to do anything in the state’s power to thwart implementation of Obamacare, but the issue has proved so overwhelmingly popular that even the most moderate of the moderates are now claiming to have been opposed to the bill all along.

Those Republicans that launched their political careers as anti-abortion crusaders continue to tout their pro-life credentials, but most of the advertisements that have been running non-stop on talk radio and filling up Republican mailboxes have focused on the economic debate. The conservatives accuse their rivals of being little better than Democrats, a most damning slur ‘round here, while the moderates have sought to portray their opponents of wanting to do nothing at all, as if that were a bad thing.

We think the conservatives have the stronger argument, and should go a long way to reforming the state’s Republican party in their image. We attribute the moderates’ long domination of the state in large part to the fact that somebody who wants to do things with government is more likely to run for office than someone who wants to stop it from doing things, but this year the need for governmental restraint is so dire that the conservatives have been able to run a fairly strong if somewhat inexperienced and unpolished slate of candidates.

Another reason for the moderates’ strength has been all the Kansans who would be Democrats in any other state but vote in the Republican primaries here so as not to waste their votes. This year the number of party-switchers will be especially high, given the utter pointlessness of the Democrat primary, but they will likely still be outnumbered by the bona fide Republicans who are tired of the seeing the state fall further behind in job creation despite all the best efforts of the eco-devo devotees.

Similar uprisings are occurring within the Republican parties of other states, and have already knocked out some entrenched incumbents who became too comfortable with the ever-expansive politics as usual. The newly energized conservatives should eventually exert their influence from the bottom all the way to top of the ticket Republican, and could even prove a decisive factor in helping the reputedly moderate candidate that wound up with the party’s presidential nomination. The Democrats will be peddling the same old Roosevelt-era tax-and-borrow-and-spend policies while complaining that the Republicans are peddling the same old borrow-and-spend policies, but it should be apparent eventually that this isn’t the same old Grand Old Party of the long-ago Bush days.

— Bud Norman