Sunday, April 2, 2017

Sunday Reading

Taking Back Kansas — Benjamin Wallace-Wells in The New Yorker on how moderate Republicans are bring sanity back.

This week, the Kansas Senate voted by a wide margin to expand the state’s Medicaid coverage. A majority of Democrats supported the bill, as might be expected, but so did a majority of Republicans. That the vote was both bipartisan and decisive is a modest but promising sign for the future of public health insurance. But the vote had an added significance because it took place in Kansas. For the six years that Sam Brownback has been Governor, the state has been the scene of what may be the nation’s most extreme experiment in conservatism. The Medicaid vote capped an extraordinary year-long turn against Brownback, in which many of his allies in the legislature were defeated in primary and general elections, and, in the legislative session now coming to a close, his budget and priorities were rejected. The political history of the past quarter century has been one of deepening polarization. The reaction in Kansas suggests that it is still possible for a party to go too far—that there is still a center in American life which may yet hold.

Brownback, who has a law degree from the University of Kansas, is possessed of a low-key personal style and a high-intensity conservative politics. He has been the defining figure in Kansas political life for two decades, since he won Bob Dole’s Senate seat in the 1996 election. In the mid-aughts, when evangelical conservatives were understood to be the country’s most powerful political bloc, Brownback had seemed a plausible representative for the G.O.P.’s future—a rigid social conservative who found some ways to appeal to moderates. He made increasing American aid to Africa his cause, and cited the example of William Wilberforce, the Christian abolitionist who helped lead the campaign to end the slave trade in the British Parliament, so often that there was a rash of editorials about the rise of “Wilberforce Republicans.” But national politics grew more liberal and optimistic, and after a brief bid for the 2008 Republican Presidential nomination Brownback returned to Kansas, where he won the Governor’s office in 2010. In his first term as Governor, he focussed on a different kind of problem. People were leaving his state for “faraway places that entice our children to abandon the communities that nurtured them,” he wrote, in 2012. “I don’t have oceans and I don’t have mountains,” he pointed out to an interviewer last year. “Just got mountains of grain.”

Brownback decided to remake Kansas by radically cutting taxes, an experiment to draw new business and people to the state. “We can no longer afford to view our current economic crisis as something distinct and apart from the crisis of family and community decay,” he wrote in an op-ed, in 2012. Brownback persuaded the legislature to adopt budgets that would eventually eliminate taxes on three hundred and thirty thousand small businesses, and cut the state’s top income-tax rate by a third. Brownback chose to opt out of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, which denied coverage to more than seventy-five thousand Kansans.

But the flight out of Kansas did not reverse, and as revenues diminished even basic state functions began to erode. Budget shortfalls were so severe that Kansas turned to raiding its highway-construction fund, which meant that highways were not repaired. Without Medicaid patients, a large rural hospital in Independence had to close. Public schools saw their performance on standardized tests decline, as the state contributed less to their budgets; the Kansas Supreme Court held in two different cases that the state’s underfunding of education was in violation of its own constitution. Brownback became the least popular governor in the country—last September, his approval rating was at twenty-three per cent. Seven separate organizations were founded with the goal of electing moderates, and one of them, the Save Kansas Coalition, persuaded the four living former governors of the state—two Democrats and two Republicans—to denounce Brownback and endorse moderate candidates for legislative offices. Mike Hayden, a former Republican Governor, said that Brownback and his allies “should be ashamed” of what their tax cuts had done to the state. “We virtually don’t have a penny in our pocket,” Hayden said. “The experiment is failing.”

In the Republican primaries last year, moderates ousted more than a dozen Brownback supporters, most of them explicitly declaring their opposition to the Governor. In the general election, more than a dozen more Brownback Republicans lost to Democrats. When the legislature reconvened, in January, a moderate coalition rejected Brownback’s budget and voted to expand Medicaid. (Yesterday, Brownback vetoed the legislation; the moderates may be a few votes short of overriding him.) At a forum after the election, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party suggested that there were “some voters who were anti-Brownback and there were others whose main motivation was they didn’t like the status quo.” He conceded, “They had this uncomfortable feeling about Kansas.”

State legislative elections receive little attention, but their stakes are high, making them a good target both for lobbyists and for ideological factions. Harvard’s Theda Skocpol has found that the best predictor of whether a state legislature voted to curb public-employee bargaining in 2011 was not public opinion within the state but whether the Koch-backed group Americans for Prosperity, which was pushing the issue, had a paid staffer there. In Kansas, legislators make less than twenty thousand dollars each year, which may mean that candidates tend toward the committed fringes. In 2011, a Brownback ally in the legislature named Virgil Peck said, about a bill proposing that feral hogs be shot from helicopters, “Looks to me like, if shooting these immigrating feral hogs works, maybe we have found a solution to our illegal-immigration problem.”

The revolt of the Kansas moderates has some of the feel of a social restoration, in which small-town institutionalists reclaimed Republican politics from the ideologues who had taken over. Peck was beaten in the Republican primary by a retired Air Force commander. A school superintendent in Stafford beat a more conservative incumbent; so did a retired school superintendent from Tonganoxie. The moderate coalition that voted to expand Medicaid coverage was led by a retired anesthesiologist, Republican Barbara Bollier, who had been kicked off the Health Committee when the State Assembly was in more radical hands. Last week, shortly after the vote to expand Medicaid coverage, the State Senate passed a resolution condemning pornography. That seemed like a good hint at where Kansas politics might go, guided by the remnant faction of religious conservatives and the rising one of school administrators.

For all its excess, the Brownback era obeyed a certain logic, which also helped fuel the rural support for the Trump campaign. If you believed that your home was under existential threat, then an extreme politics made sense. In 2015, the Times Magazine published a moving story by Chris Suellentrop, a journalist and Kansas native, whose uncle, a state legislator with a serious and temperate disposition, had joined the Brownback movement. Gene Suellentrop was sensitive to his fellow-Kansans’ plight. Without an aggressive effort like Brownback’s to draw business and attention, he told his nephew, “everyone else will see us as flyover country.” In retrospect, voters’ perceptions of the state’s precariousness and Brownback’s radical politics acted as mutual accelerants. The question now is whether those levers can act in reverse—whether moderate politicians can persuade residents that no social precipice is near, that Kansas is not dying.

Do It Now — Jonathan Chait on the need to filibuster Neil Gorsuch.

Neil Gorsuch will be the next Supreme Court justice. “He’ll be on the floor of the Senate next week and confirmed on Friday,” promised Mitch McConnell, and there is no reason to doubt him. Either Democrats will filibuster, and Republicans will change Senate rules to prevent filibusters of Supreme Court nominees, resulting in Gorsuch being confirmed, or Democrats will fail to filibuster, resulting in Gorsuch being confirmed. The only question at issue is in what fashion Gorsuch takes his seat. Republicans are fervently working to persuade Democrats to let Gorsuch take his seat without a change in the filibuster rule. Why do you think they care so much?

If Republicans are telling Democrats that any attempt to filibuster the Republican nominee will lead to the Republicans abolishing the filibuster, it stands to reason that the filibuster is not worth keeping around. What value is there in a weapon one’s adversary can disarm at any time?

Republicans have devised a somewhat complicated response to this objection. Yes, they concede, the filibuster is useless right now, in this instance. But that is only because the merits of this particular nomination so obviously and clearly lie on their own side. “If Neil Gorsuch isn’t good enough, there’s never going to be a nominee good enough, and so I don’t see any advantage to rewarding bad behavior,” says Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn. Republican senators’ “appetite is entirely a function of circumstance,” argues Liam Donovan, a Republican lobbyist. “Only seeing such a model jurist held hostage to cynical political whims would be enough to compel the righteous indignation necessary to go nuclear.” (Going “nuclear” means changing Senate rules to limit the filibuster.) If Democrats drop the filibuster, Republicans will leave it in place, and maybe Democrats will get to use it next time. Maybe!

One flaw in this argument is that it utterly ignores the circumstances by which Gorsuch came to his nomination. Yes, he is well qualified and respected by liberal peers. On the other hand, he only has the opportunity to claim a Supreme Court seat because Republicans violated a long-standing norm that allows presidents to nominate somebody — the exact parameters of who that somebody is being the subject of regular dispute — to fill a vacant seat.

The Republican incredulity that Democrats would have the gall to object to fine, upstanding Neil Gorsuch is quite special. (How can you complain about me picking up some money I found lying there on the sidewalk? Never mind whether it got there because I ripped the wallet out of your pocket.)

The notion that Republicans would somehow not be willing to abolish the filibuster for Trump’s next nominee, after being willing to do so to complete the wake of the judicial heist of the century, defies plausibility. Every Supreme Court vacancy counts for one vote. The next vacancy will matter just as much as this one. Sure, if Trump decides to nominate Michael Cohen or Scott Baio to the Court, some Senate Republicans might object. But Trump has clearly indicated that he defers on this subject to regular Republicans. The next judicial vacancy will seem at least as crucial as this one, and the pressure on Senate Republicans to confirm their party’s choice will be overwhelming.

We already live in a world where a Republican president has a 50-vote standard to confirm a nominee to the Court. The only question is whether Democratic presidents have the same standard. The worst possible outcome for Democrats would be to allow Republicans to fill a vacancy with 50 votes while forcing their party to muster 60. And there is a lot of reason to believe this is the case right now. Barack Obama’s last Supreme Court nominee, the highly respected and moderate jurist Elena Kagan, got the support of just five Republican senators, of which two were driven into retirement by actual or threatened primary challengers in part because of those votes. Once Democrats lost their supermajority, their ability to seat a justice probably disappeared with it.

In 2014, Ruth Bader Ginsburg told Elle that she did not want to retire in part because she believed Senate Republicans would filibuster any left-of-center nominee to replace her:

Who do you think President Obama could appoint at this very day, given the boundaries that we have? If I resign any time this year, he could not successfully appoint anyone I would like to see in the court. [The Senate Democrats] took off the filibuster for lower federal court appointments, but it remains for this court. So anybody who thinks that if I step down, Obama could appoint someone like me, they’re misguided.

Mitch McConnell wants to preserve an ambiguous situation where the norms say one thing and the rules say another. This is to his advantage, because he is a serial violator of norms. This isn’t a moral question — he’s a brilliant tactician and he’s very good at identifying political strategies that are legal but which have not been used due to social convention. If McConnell can use the threat of the nuclear option to make the filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee a useless weapon for the opposing party, he can preserve it as a potential useful one for himself. If Democrats don’t make McConnell abolish the Supreme Court filibuster, he may use it to blockade their next nominee, and they will have only themselves to blame.

Double Bill — Two plays by William Inge that epitomize the plain-speaking charm of his characters and home town are running in repertory.  Elisabeth Vincentelli has a review.

Hal and Marie are young, gorgeous, vital. They’re also inopportune outsiders, wreaking havoc on seemingly tranquil communities.

As the catalysts in two William Inge plays of the 1950s, Hal (in “Picnic”) and Marie (in “Come Back, Little Sheba”) are inadvertent agents of change. But don’t expect melodramatic fireworks: The shows depict lives in turmoil with deceptive simplicity — an elusive quality that the Transport Group captures in the graceful revivals now in repertory at the Gym at Judson.

Inge doesn’t have the reputation of his contemporary Tennessee Williams, perhaps because he lacked Williams’s incantatory flamboyance, which encouraged myriad staging possibilities, audience devotion and a thousand campy spoofs. But his work burst with generous humanity and possessed a sure grasp on the power of intimacy — something these productions skillfully bring to the fore.

The director Jack Cummings III has staged both shows in close quarters for about 85 people at a time. The Kansas porches where the “Picnic” action takes place are gone, and Dane Laffrey’s scenic design consists of a few rusting deck chairs in front of a plywood back wall. There is period furniture in “Sheba,” which only reinforces the play’s take on claustrophobic middle-class despair. In each case, theatergoers are never more than a few feet from the actors — in some scenes, a few unsettling inches — turning from passive viewers to emotionally invested neighbors.

In “Picnic,” Hal (the likable but distractingly gym-buffed David T. Patterson) is an ebullient drifter who lands in a small Kansas town and starts doing odd jobs for Mrs. Potts (Heather MacRae). The mere presence of this pulchritudinous life force sends the local women into a spin, from a suddenly giddy Mrs. Potts to the young beauty Madge (Ginna Le Vine) to the single schoolteacher Rosemary (Emily Skinner). Even Madge’s boyfriend, Alan (Rowan Vickers), gets a touch of Hal fever.

The contaminant in “Sheba” is Marie (Hannah Elless), a pretty coed who rents a room from Doc (Joseph Kolinski) and his wife, Lola (Ms. MacRae). The older couple appear happy enough, but their obsession with Marie suggests fault lines. Doc is in Alcoholics Anonymous and sticks to meticulous routines as a way to cope; he also sneaks looks at Marie, his fixed expression imbued with guilt and creepy desire.

As for Lola, she engages in conversation with deliverymen (all portrayed by John Cariani); the connection is played as a result of unbearable loneliness rather than misguided flirtation. She treats Marie like a surrogate daughter (her actual child died soon after birth), pouring onto her the affection she probably unleashed on her now-missing dog, Little Sheba.

The story is fairly predictable, especially with a bottle of whiskey sitting on top of the fridge like a malevolent lighthouse luring Doc to the shoals. But the play proves spoiler-proof, the payoff simply devastating.

“Sheba” and “Picnic” have a lot in common, most notably their juxtaposition of disappointed older characters with younger ones who still have the luxury of options. Some of these options may not be healthy or enduring, but at least the young’uns can try again. They don’t realize what their older counterparts know: Nothing lasts, least of all joy and looks.  [Photo by Richard Termine/New York Times]

 Doonesbury — Topic of the day.