Largely overlooked last week, amidst the din of Trump disasters, was the hilarious news that Sam Brownback is being rescued from his failed right-wing reign as governor of Kansas, so that he can serve us all as the United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.
If you’ve ever worked in a place where somebody screwed up but got promoted anyway, to a position with “at large” in the title, then you’re probably familiar with the art of failing upward. That kind of manuever is usually intended to shield the screwup from embarrassment, although it rarely works, usually because “at large” is such an obvious fig leaf.
And no Republican politician has arguably been more of an embarrassment, these past six years, than Sam Brownback – who will finish his truncated stint with a 25 percent approval rating, the most unpopular governor in America except for Chris Christie.
Basically, Brownback is the poster child for the Republican “supply-side” credo – the myth that massive tax cuts will usher in a new paradise of economic growth and budget surpluses, the myth that has collided with reality over and over and over since the Ronald Reagan era. The same myth, by the way, that Paul Ryan and his “tax reform” Republicans are currently promising all over again.
When Brownback, a former senator and short-lived presidential candidate, was sworn in as Kansas governor in 2011, he promised a “real-live experiment” in pure conservatism. He said that massive tax cuts on affluent Kansans would deliver “a shot of adrenaline” that would trickle down for the betterment of all. He heralded his Kansas experiment as a red-state model for the nation. But by last month, the economic and social damage was so horrific that the Republican state legislature actually voted to repeal his tax cuts.
Then he vetoed. Then they overrode his veto. Which meant that, politically and forever, he was dead meat.
So now it’s Trump to the rescue with an exit strategy. For Brownback, that’s great; for the Kansans left behind, not so great. In the years since his tax cuts were enacted, the revenue drain has put the budget so deep in the red that vital social and school services have been curtailed or suspended; Kansas has suffered three credit rating downgrades; Kansas’ job growth has fallen to 48th in the nation…all the stuff that everyone not besotted by conservative mythology predicted on day one.
As Kansas political analyst Bob Beatty emailed the Kansas City Star newspaper last week, “Brownback gambled that supply-side economics would work and that the tax cuts would be so successful as to bring a windfall of money to the state, no matter what…He lost that gamble. Whatever new jobs and revenue the tax cuts might have brought were drawfed by the loss of revenue to the state, and by decreasing revenues in other areas, the budget mess that ensued was disastrous.”
So disastrous, in fact, that a lot of Brownback’s conservative allies were swept from office in last year’s state legislative primaries by moderate Republicans who hadn’t swallowed the Kool Aid, moderates who understood that while voters like the idea of tax cuts, they generally dislike the consequences. For instance: deep cuts in the quality of Kansas’ kids schooling; deep cuts in the state transportation program (so deep that the ex-director of the Kansas Turnpike Authority predicts “a long-term disaster for our state highways”); deep cuts in higher-ed spending, Medicaid, early childhood programs…it’s amazing what happens when ideological know-nothingism collides with the wall of reality.
Hey, Brownback did accomplish a few things. He loosened up state gun laws so that concealed-carry Kansans are no longer required to get training, and he opened up colleges and public buildings to guns. So there’s that. But overall, to quote Joy Koesten, a newly-elected moderate Republican legislator, “I don’t know if we’ve seen the depth of the (economic and budgetary) damage. And I think it’s going to take a decade or more to figure that out and to fix it. So if that’s a legacy, I’m not sure it’s a positive one.”
But Republicans never look back and learn from mistakes; they just blindly forge ahead. Congress’ “tax reform” push – slated for this summer or fall, or whenever they finally give up trying to kill health coverage for tens of millions – is basically the Brownback model writ large. How they expect that model to work nationally, after it cratered the budget during the Reagan years and the George W. Bush years, and after it did the same for Kansas, is a mystery best left to the shrinks who specialize in denial.
As for Brownback, our future “at large” ambassador, it’s all ending quite plendidly. He tweeted the other day that religious freedom is “the first freedom,” but every failed leader knows that what comes first is the freedom to walk away from the wreckage he’s wrought.
From Trump’s next speech to cops he uses as props:
“…So when you bust Hillary for her crimes, don’t be nice, like putting your hand on her head as you ease her into the car. Just bang her head on the roof.”
Ask yourself who has a better deal this morning: Sam Brownback or John Kelly?