From Dwight Eisenhower to Bob Dole to Sam Brownback and the changes in the GOP they reflect.
ABILENE, Kan. – Kansas grows cattle, corn and Republicans, including several whose stories trace the arc of the Grand Old Party.
There was Gov. Alf Landon, who was buried under Franklin Roosevelt’s landslide re-election in 1936. His daughter, Nancy Landon Kassebaum, served three terms in the U.S. Senate, earning a reputation as a moderate willing to work across the aisle on issues affecting middle class families. There was Bob Dole, who led his party in the Senate and was its presidential nominee in 1996.
But no Kansan looms larger in America’s history than Dwight D. Eisenhower, who grew up in this pleasant town previously known for the misdeeds of figures like Wild Bill Hickok and John Wesley Hardin.
Eisenhower’s boyhood home still stands, a small Victorian that looks like something from Disney’s Main Street USA. Downtown Abilene, a couple of blocks away, looks little changed since the day Eisenhower – the Abilene boy who had grown up to be the Supreme Allied Commander of the forces that defeated the Axis in Europe, came home to declare his candidacy for president.
Eisenhower was as nonpartisan a Republican as the GOP has endorsed. He’d never enrolled in any party, believing military men had no place in politics. After the war, both parties had hoped to land Eisenhower as a presidential nominee. But Ike cast his lot with the Republicans.
He won in a landslide, and soon changed the face of the party. The GOP dropped the isolationism that had been its hallmark before the war. It also dropped its opposition to popular New Deal programs Republicans had bitterly fought in the ‘30s. Rather than trying to repeal Social Security, Eisenhower expanded it to cover more people.
Eisenhower embraced traditional Republican goals. He reduced the national debt and balanced the budget. But he believed government, well-managed, was capable of doing good things for people and great things for the country. Having managed the biggest government program ever – the invasion of Europe – he wasn’t afraid of big government. He created new federal agencies, like NASA and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. He increased the minimum wage by 33 percent.
His greatest legacy was the Interstate Highway System which, 60 years later, is still shaping how and where Americans live. Eisenhower sold it as a defense measure – he’d been impressed by the German highways that gave Hitler’s armies an advantage – but it was in commerce that the interstates proved to be a game-changer.
Bob Dole was in the crowd in Abilene for Eisenhower’s homecoming. Badly injured fighting in Italy, Dole had spent years recovering in VA hospitals, and he also believed government could do great things. He joined Eisenhower’s Republican army and rose in its ranks over a long career.
Dole has his own museum at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. Exhibits stress his bipartisan achievements, like the expansion of the food stamp program he forged with liberal Sen. George McGovern.
But Washington grew more partisan as the years went on, and the Republican Party grew more ideological. It became a party more interested in fighting government than in making it work. Dole, the Senate GOP leader, wanted his party’s presidential nomination, so he traded legislative compromise for partisan obstruction. He made tax cuts his priority, not programs for people.
Dole quit the Senate to focus on his presidential campaign, but lost anyway to Bill Clinton. His Senate seat was soon filled by Sam Brownback, a different kind of Republican. Brownback was a favorite of the Koch Brothers, conservative mega-donors whose company is based in Kansas. In Congress, he was more focused on abortion, same-sex marriage and other social issues than on making government work.
When Brownback became governor of Kansas in 2011, he dedicated himself to proving the article of faith that tax cuts pay for themselves by creating economic growth. With help from an overwhelmingly Republican legislature, Brownback enacted huge income tax cuts to spark an economic boom. He called it the “red-state experiment.”
But the boom never arrived and Brownback’s experiment fizzled. In terms of economic activity and job growth, Kansas fared worse than its neighboring states and the nation as a whole. The tax cuts blew a giant hole in the state budget, forcing cuts to education and other popular programs. A bunch of GOP state reps lost their seats in the next election, and the Legislature finally repealed most of the tax cuts, overriding Brownback’s veto.
In Congress and most state capitals, Republicans’ faith in tax cuts appears unshaken by Kansas’ experience. Another outsider has taken over the Grand Old Party and is again changing its face. Don’t ask me how this all ends. All I know is that when it comes to Kansas Republicans, I like Ike.
— Rick Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow his journey at www.rickholmes.net. Like him on Facebook at Holmes & Co, on follow him on Twitter @HolmesAndCo.