Liberals throughout the land breathed a sigh of relief when Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas stepped down in 2008 and later decided to run for governor. Yes, the nation’s gain was a loss for the good people of Kansas, but Brownback’s special brand of right-wing fundamentalism was so extreme that many felt it was better to try to contain him in a single state rather than inflict him on the whole of the country. Judging from the four years he’s been in charge of that unfortunate state, their concerns were well-founded.
This should come as no surprise. His tenure in the Senate was characterized by his righteous absolutism and entirely predictable ultra-conservative vote. There was no tax cut he did not back or military adventure he wasn’t in favor of. He voted to impeach President Clinton and even took the unusual step of decrying the immorality of the American public for failing to be properly outraged. But it was in the realm of culture and religion where he made his mark.
Once a devout evangelical Protestant, Brownback converted to Catholicism later in life. (His chief of staff at the time was none other than Congressman Paul Ryan, who is credited with counseling him in his conversion.) In the Senate he took up the banner of the culture war, even chairing a Senate group called the Values Action Team which included such conservative activist groups as Concerned Women for America, Family Research Council, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the National Right to Life Committee, where he and fellow right-wing senators plotted their strategy for taking America back to the Dark Ages. He was so doctrinaire he even refused to vote for a particular judicial candidate because she had once attended a lesbian commitment ceremony. (She didn’t officiate or participate; she merely attended.) For the two terms he served in the Senate he was a ferocious culture warrior.
But he wasn’t always so intensely focused on the decadence and moral dissipation of modern American life. When he first ran for congress in the mid-’90s he was considered a moderate Kansas Republican like Eisenhower. But a tough campaign against an opponent backed by well-organized right-to-life zealots converted him to an evangelical culture warrior and Republican revolutionary so committed to cutting taxes and shrinking government one profiler said he even gave Newt Gingrich “the willies.”
He became leader of a House group called the New Federalists which devoted itself to the dismantling of the government one brick at a time. Fortunately, they were unable to pass their ambitious agenda so they instead became the far-right’s hitmen, pioneering the use of hard-core obstructionist tactics to paralyze the government. They were the faction agitating the hardest for a government shutdown in 1995, pushing Gingrich to his most obstreperous limits (and setting the stage for his precipitous fall from grace). Joe Scarborough famously quoted Brownback telling him not to be disillusioned by the PR disaster that ensued, saying “Rome wasn’t burnt in a day.”
His far-right fiscal bona fides solidly demonstrated, Brownback turned his attention to social issues when he ran for the Senate in 1996 at the height of the religious right’s growing clout in the GOP. He spent the next 12 years as a hardcore fiscal conservative but more importantly, as a far-right Christian crusader, sometimes fashioning himself as a “Wilberforce” conservative (after the British anti-slavery activist) comparing abolition of slavery to his determination to ban abortion. He’s been closely associated for years with the secretive Christian fellowship group known as the Family.
By the time he tried to run for president in 2008, he appeared to be perfect conservative candidate. Unfortunately, the anticipated groundswell didn’t materialize and he dropped out before the primaries. But he did participate in the early debates and was memorably one of the three (with Mike Huckabee and Tom Tancredo) who raised his hand to declare he did not believe in evolution.
Evidently, he really wanted an executive position, so he set his sights on the governor’s seat in Kansas and in the Tea Party wave of 2010, won decisively. Brownback’s Kansas has turned out to be a perfect petrie dish for every right-wing policy proposal he’s championed for the past 20 years. With a Republican legislature and a strong mandate, he quickly established his tenure as the right-wing experiment to end all experiments. The results are in and they are amazing. And not in a good way.
Unlike other Tea Party governors around the nation who have tried out a handful of their more extreme policies, Brownback went for broke. First he and his Koch brother allies (they are Kansas homeboys too, you’ll recall) engineered a full-blown Tea Party takeover of the legislature with a well-funded primary strategy in 2012. It is now the most conservative legislature in the nation (and that’s saying something considering how conservative Republican legislatures have become). In their minds, they are on a mission from God.
He went after the teachers’ union, in one particularly clever move creating what he called “innovation zones” which allow districts to circumvent existing state law regarding curriculum and teacher salaries. He slashed education funding, including cutting the arts programs entirely. He privatized Medicaid. (It goes without saying refused the Medicaid expansion under the ACA.) He defunded Planned Parenthood and signed one of the most far reaching anti-abortion laws in the land, declaring that life begins at “fertilization” and forcing the last remaining Kansas providers to read an anti-abortion script filled with frightening misinformation to women seeking the procedure. (He doesn’t even try to hide his religious motives—he wrote the words Jesus + Mary on top of the bill when he signed it.)
Gun legislation has been similarly extreme. Adopting the language of the 10th Amendment fetishists, they managed to pass what they called the Second Amendment Protection Act, a thoroughly useless piece of legislation declaring that the state of Kansas does not have to observe federal gun laws under its “sovereign” status. This last April, Brownback signed the “CLEO Shall Sign and Comprehensive Preemption legislation” which, among other things, prohibits all county and municipal initiative to regulate firearms and ammunition. So much for the vaunted small government, local control portion of the conservative program.
All of this was to be expected from Sam Brownback. But the results of his equally fundamentalist approach to economics has made a lot of people stand up and take notice. First and foremost, he slashed taxes to the bone. Well, not for everyone. The Center on Budget and policy priorities shows how that tax cut has been distributed:
And he cut spending, especially for education, as far as the eye can see:
(Of course, Governor Brownback is a huge proponent of religious home schooling so this is killing two birds with one stone.)
His economic mentor and top adviser, the thoroughly discredited inventor of supply-side economics, Arthur Laffer, explained the game plan back in 2012 this way:
Laffer told more than 200 people at a small-business forum at Johnson County Community College that there is a war among states over tax policy and that nowhere is that revolution more powerful than in Kansas. He said Kansas’ tax cuts and political shifts will produce “enormous prosperity” for the state.
How’s that working out? Well, last May this happened:
Moody’s Investors Service dropped Kansas from its second-highest bond rating, Aa1, to its third highest, Aa2. The Kansas Department of Transportation also took the same downgrade.
“The downgrade reflects Kansas’ relatively sluggish recovery compared with its peers, the use of non-recurring measures to balance the budget, revenue reductions resulting from tax cuts which have not been fully offset by recurring spending cuts, and an underfunded retirement system for which the state is not making required contributions,” the report said.
And that’s not all. This graph shows what’s the matter with Kansas in 2014 in red, white and blue:
As Michael Hiltzik of the LA Times pointed out, if the last few years have shown anything, it’s that draconian spending cuts inhibit economic growth while preservation of the services that businesses and workers require to thrive enable it. He cites the example of California where Gov. Jerry Brown successfully raised taxes once the recession was over. As you can see above, California’s job growth and prosperity is now leading the nation.
Yes, the citizens of Kansas voted in this right-wing wrecking crew, but it must be remembered that there was a whole lot of help from the deep pockets of native sons Charles and David Koch, who wanted to demonstrate once and for all how well their libertarian economic ideas would work if only they were given a chance. Unlike their counterparts in DC, they didn’t have to deal with a Democratic usurper in the Governor’s Mansion—they had a true believer leading the way and full rein to see their ideology put to the test.
Their problem now is not because they are seen as the Party of No, or that they are using obstructionist tactics that offend the sensibilities of those who seek a nice bipartisan consensus. These Republicans got everything they wanted. Governor Brownback’s approval rating is unsurprisingly in the dirt and he is in grave danger of losing re-election. Another nail in his coffin was pounded in last week when more than 100 current and former Republican officials endorsed Brownback’s Democratic opponent, citing the failure of his economic program and the extreme nature of his overall agenda.
Just as other races in the country are reflecting the fight between the GOP establishment and the Tea Party wing, Kansas will be a battleground in the fall for the latest fight for the soul of the Republican Party. But this time it isn’t just about race or the culture war or bad political tactics. This one is about all of that to be sure. But this time the Koch brothers’ libertarian economic dream agenda has been enacted and it’s on the ballot. If America wants to see what the country will look like if the Brownback wing of the GOP manages to get its way nationally, they only need to look at Sam Brownback’s Kansas—a disaster on every level.