Kansas won’t have Sam Brownback to kick around anymore.
The second-term Republican governor who wrecked his state’s economy and ruined the education system to give rich Kansans a tax break will quit his job to accept a new posting as Ambassador-At-Large for International Religious Freedom.
Brownback’s nomination marks the second time President Donald Trump has tried to help the onetime presidential hopeful move on from the economic and political crisis he fueled on the High Plains. The first — a cushier gig in Rome working on food policy — fell through a couple months before Brownback’s political situation went from “bad” to “humiliating.”
The recent nomination, announced by the White House on Wednesday, is a political bailout for Brownback. The governor now leapfrogs a shortlist of experts Trump’s team had already prepared in order to run away from his failures that have harmed the quality of human life in his home state.
Brownback’s governorship was defined by what he called a “real, live experiment” in extreme right-wing fiscal policy, a version of Reaganesque trickle-down ideology with the volume knob turned to 11. The state all but eliminated taxes for the wealthy, not just slashing rates but allowing anyone who could afford some creative accounting to pretend to be a small business and start paying zero percent state income tax.
The experiment was supposed to jolt the state’s floundering economy, luring jobs at such a fast clip that nobody would mind Brownback gutting the budget for public services like schools, hospitals, and work training facilities.
Kansas remained in the bottom tier of states on economic measures. The state’s schools — already so badly underfunded when Brownback took office that the state Supreme Court had ordered lawmakers to add millions of dollars to the system — quickly became a parody of banana-republic failure. Nurses who couldn’t buy ice packs anymore took to putting sponges in the kitchen freezer. Administrators warned they’d have to cut school years short.
The problem with Brownback’s tax scheme is that everyone already knows it doesn’t work.
Brownback was re-elected despite the early evidence that his tax policies were gutting the state’s ability to provide Kansans with any of the services they pay for. But when the fiscal bleeding didn’t stop, both voters and the governor’s elected allies turned on him. The legislature dealt Brownback a series of policy rebukes through the winter and spring, culminating in an early June vote to roll back his platform and raise taxes by some $1.2 billion over the coming years.
It wasn’t long ago that Brownback was widely regarded as a likely GOP presidential nominee. He had received glowing marks from hard-right conservative groups throughout his long Senate tenure. A smooth retail politician who could put a charming aw-shucks spin on just about any regressive right-wing idea about poverty, women’s bodily sovereignty, and sexual orientation, Brownback seemed poised to take the Republican mantle after former Massachussetts Governor Mitt Romney ran for president in 2012.
Now, Brownback is fleeing for a State Department job that’s all but anonymous.
Brownback will still be in position to do significant harm. The Trump team reportedly intends for its religious liberty ambassador to set the kind of hard line on relations with the Muslim world that former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush explicitly avoided so as not to conflate the violent fringe elements within Islam with the planet’s 1.6 billion Muslims. The office Brownback will run has long been viewed as a do-nothing job, but religious and foreign policy actors are eager to change that.
In accepting the position, Brownback gets a new lease on political life. A few years traveling to international meetings and preaching the gospel of Trump might just mean that people forget what a mess he made when Kansans gave him power. Spend some time out of the spotlight after a debacle, and it’s much easier to come storming back at just the right moment to be viewed as a hero.