The crash in Kansas: Conservative fantasy collides with reality

    For a primer on what can happen when a right-wing ideologue runs rampant with an economic experiment, check out the sorry state of Kansas.

    Earlier this week, Kansans got the grim news: Thanks to conservative Gov. Sam Brownback’s big tax cuts – enacted in 2011, part of what he hailed as “a real-live experiment” in pure conservative governance – his tax revenue through 2016 will be $1 billion less than originally envisioned. Tax revenue has already plunged 11 percent in the past fiscal year. The real-life result? A massive budget deficit that will force the state to slash spending for schools, roads, and social services. Plus, the red ink will get even worse, because his “experiment” mandates more tax cuts in the next three years.

    The state had a budget surplus when Brownback – former senator, former short-lived GOP presidential candidate – took the reins in January ’11. But Brownback, in thrall to a long-dead Reaganesque utopian fantasy, and guided by supply-side/trickle-down guru Arthur Laffer, declared that big tax cuts would give the economy “a shot of adrenaline,” create scads of jobs, and ultimately balance the budget. In other words, the tax cuts would pay for themselves. (Back in the ’80s, that fantasy was known as the Laffer Curve. Or, more accurately, the Laugher Curve – because when Reagan tried trickle down, he blew a big hole in the federal budget.)

    The real-life result? Tepid job growth (Kansas is currently 45th in the nation in job creation, far below the national average), a worsening poverty rate, and three credit rating downgrades. Brownback hasn’t backed away from his foolish crusade – more on his defiant ‘tude, a few paragraphs south – but he has copped to a communication miscue. He said in August that he regrets having used the term experiment: “I wish I could take that back.”

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    But here’s the truly amazing thing – amazing, at least, to those of us who endorse accountability:

    Even though Brownback has screwed up royally by pursuing what Tim Storey at the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures calls “the GOP agenda on steroids,” even though Brownback and his conservative lawmaking allies have already been compelled to cut education spending (result: fewer school buses, fewer hours for nurses and teacher aides, larger class sizes, pre-K program cancellations), even though his big tax cuts have basically bankrupted the state, even though he ignored prescient Wall Street warnings that his ideological fervor would push Kansas into deepening financial crisis…

    He just got re-elected anyway.

    That’s right, folks. Even after Brownback’s ideological fantasy crashed, even after a sizeable number of sane Kansans woke up to reality and said they’d vote for his opponent (state House minority leader Paul Davis), he still won a second term last week, by a four-point margin. He was only the second Republican governor to win re-election in the last 50 years – despite his failed lab experiment. What are we to make of that?

    There’s no reason to traffic in condescension and suggest that voters are dolts, that they stupidly vote against their own self-interest. No, Kansas was about voter loyalty, not stupidity. It was also a classic demonstration of what Republican candidates do best. They don’t quake in their boots and cower in the corner, like Democrats do when they’re imperiled. No, Republicans do the opposite. They double down on their convictions and parade them without equivocation and apology.

    Brownback hit the trail this fall and ballyhooed his mission to make Kansas a red-state model for the nation, insisting that a sunnier budget and stronger economy were on the way (“the state’s economy is good and growing”). He basically lied about the budget forecast; the horrible numbers were kept under wraps until this week, with the election safely in the rear-view mirror, but no matter. Meanwhile, outside groups flooded the airwaves with ads that tagged Paul Davis as a “liberal.”

    On election night, the exit polls showed that swing voters and moderates were solid for Davis, but they were trumped – because no voting group in a midterm election is more loyal, and more reliable, than conservatives.

    They got the message (Brownback, the unapologetic ideologue; Davis, the liberal) and they responded en masse. The fact that Brownback was driving their state over the cliff was irrelevant; he was their kind of guy, and that was good enough. Conservatives were 41 percent of the Kansas electorate, and they gave Brownback 86 percent of their votes. Bingo, the margin of victory.

    It’s tempting to say that Brownback would never have survived in a more moderate state – Pennsylvanians ousted Tom Corbett for less – but Kansans in this era have put plenty of Democrats in the gubernatorial chair. So maybe it was the ’14 Republican wave that lifted Brownback’s leaky boat. Let it be recorded, and not for the first time, that even when right-wing fantasies crash in the real world, purblind conservative voters will show up to loyally defend their own.

    If only Brownback would run for president again, and boast in GOP debates about his tax-cut experiment. The audiences would cheer.



    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.


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