Sam Brownback is a harbinger of national doom: Bleeding Kansas' scary lesson for America

The tax-cutting fanatic's approval rating just plunged to 18%. But Kansas' failures could soon become the nation's

Published October 27, 2015 8:30PM (EDT)

  (AP/Charlie Riedel)
(AP/Charlie Riedel)

This weekend brought the hilarious news that the approval rating for Sam Brownback, governor of Kansas and multi-year winner of the award for “Midwestern Republican Politician Who Most Resembles an Undertaker,” has fallen to an amazing low of 18 percent, while 48 percent pronounced themselves “very dissatisfied” with him. Most humiliating of all for Brownback? In this heavily Republican state, Barack Obama is outpolling him by double digits, with 28 percent of Kansas residents pronouncing themselves “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the president’s job performance.

One cannot overstate just how badly Brownback and his pet Republican far-right legislature have wrecked Kansas in just a few years. The governor came into office in early 2011 promising to turn the state into a “real live experiment” for trickle-down economics that involved cutting tax rates to goose economic growth, which would fill the state’s coffers with so much revenue that Kansans would be literally swimming through seas of cash to get to Jayhawks basketball games. In other words, the usual supply-side plans that conservatives cling to no matter how many times they have crashed and burned at the national level.

To the surprise of absolutely no one who lived through the 1980s under Reagan or the 2000s under George W. Bush, Brownback’s economic plans have not worked out. This year the state found itself with a budget deficit of somewhere around $600 million. It has an annual job-growth rate almost four percentage points below the nationwide average. In June, after an exceptionally long legislative, Brownback signed a bitterly fought-over budget that requires the state to slash education funding and raid its highway fund in order to bring it into balance. Enjoy your potholes, Kansas!

Even getting to a balanced budget required the raising of taxes somewhere. Brownback refused to even partly repeal his income tax cuts that contributed to the whole budget mess in the first place. He did agree to an increase in the state sales tax, along with consumption taxes on items like cigarettes. These are regressive tax increases because they hit the state’s poor and working class residents the hardest. So Kansas is trying to dig out of the mess it made for itself on the backs of its poorest and most vulnerable residents. While also denying many of them health care, since Brownback refused Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, which the federal government would have paid for.

If I were Sam Brownback, I’d issue an executive order for law enforcement to confiscate all the pitchforks in the state.

And we haven’t even gotten into the social issues. Brownback began his political career as an evangelical, but then he converted to Catholicism. In terms of religious conservatism, it’s a distinction without a difference. He has crusaded against gay marriage and any gun control. On abortion, he signed a bill banning all abortions after 21 weeks on the scientifically dubious grounds that fetuses can feel pain. A judge had to order him to approve a budget item granting a little over $300,000 in family-planning funds to Planned Parenthood on the grounds that the state had unfairly targeted the organization.

Brownback has been so terrible, particularly on economic issues, that when he ran for re-election 2014, a group of over 100 Kansas Republicans got together to endorse his Democratic opponent, Paul Davis. It was one of the great shocks of the 2014 cycle that he managed to win re-election. Though based on this weekend’s poll results, one suspects the people of Kansas would like a do-over.

Brownback’s fortunes mirror those of another Midwestern Republican governor, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who took office at the same time in 2011. Like Brownback, Walker turned his state into a laboratory experiment for trickle-down economics, slashing income and property tax rates and promising in return that Wisconsin would see blazing economic growth. Instead the tax cuts blew a multi-billion-dollar hole in the state’s budget and led to education and social-services cuts, a result predicted by anyone who understands basic math. Which would eliminate most Republicans, I guess.

Kansas’s woes have attracted less attention than Wisconsin’s, perhaps because Brownback did not become a national figure by trying to destroy his state’s labor unions. (He did try to destroy a teenage girl who tweeted something unflattering about him, proving again that no fee-fees are as delicate as right-winger fee-fees.) But they do offer a warning to the rest of the country about the consequences of electing Republicans to both the White House and majorities in both houses of Congress next fall. (The biggest mystery about Brownback at this point is that he has been such an awful governor, it’s a wonder he’s not running for president.)

This is not a perfect analogy – there are differences in the mechanics of governance between the state and federal levels. But Kansas is at the very least an object lesson in voting for the party, not the candidate. No matter what one thinks of either Democratic candidate, the dangers of turning both the White House and Congress over to the Republican party should be even more frightening.

By Gary Legum

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Editor's Picks Kansas Republicans Sam Brownback Scott Walker Supply-side Economics Tax Cuts