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Ideology not always practical
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Suddenly, Kansas is the center of the political universe. Sen. Pat Roberts, a three-term Republican, is trailing an independent challenger, Greg Orman, in the polls. A Roberts defeat could jeopardize Republican hopes for gaining a majority in the Senate.
But the race for governor of Kansas, which has gotten far less attention, is actually more interesting. The incumbent, Republican Sam Brownback, has embarked on an ideological -- even theological -- crusade to slash state taxes. The result -- fiscal calamity.
Kansas is facing huge revenue shortfalls for the second year in a row. Since state law mandates a balanced budget, a healthy rainy-day fund has been drained dry to cover the deficits, and two bond rating agencies have downgraded the state's credit score.
As a result, more than 100 Republican officials staged a revolt this summer and endorsed Brownback's opponent, Democrat Paul Davis, currently the minority leader of the state legislature.
One GOP rebel, banker and former state senator Wint Winter, explained his defection to The New York Times: "I think Sam's experiment, as he's called it, is backfiring on us. It's gone way too far. We're all very alarmed by the damage to our public schools, very alarmed by the damage to the state's financial responsibility and very alarmed about the credit downgrade that Wall Street is paying attention to."
Kansas is a deeply red state -- Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama there by 22 points -- yet the latest polls show Davis with a narrow lead. He might not win, but the story of Brownback's tenure is highly instructive.
The governor is really testing the idea that a rigid, hard-right philosophy -- which dominates Republican thinking in Washington -- can actually be applied to governing a state. So far the answer is clearly "no."
There have always been at least two distinct forms of conservatism. One of them, centered in the South and heavily shaped by religious values, takes a normative view of politics. It might be called "evangelical" conservatism and treats the world as it should be, not the way it actually is.
The other tradition, rooted in the West, takes a far more pragmatic approach. Think of it as "frontier" conservatism, which flows from the life experience of pioneers and settlers, farmers and ranchers, miners and loggers. Ideology never drove a herd of cows or harvested a field of wheat.
Like many other Republicans, Brownback preached the gospel that slashing taxes would actually increase government revenues. When the exact opposite happened, he blamed Washington for the deficits, but even fellow Republicans are not buying his attempt to escape responsibility.
Ed Rolfs, a former revenue secretary for a GOP governor, told the Wichita Eagle, "When you cut taxes, you lose revenue. I'm sorry, that's just the way it works."
Yes, it is. But the state of Kansas is now suffering from their governor's refusal to recognize that reality.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.