GOP leaders in Kansas and U.S. don’t negotiate in good faith. They threaten arson instead.

April 26, 2023 3:33 am
Colorful smoke and flame from a burning match against a black background

The public usually thinks of political parties as groups trying to accomplish things for the good of society, writes Clay Wirestone. But what happens when one wing of one party decides to go all in on destruction? (Getty Images)

In Washington, D.C., House Republicans have decided to hold the economy hostage in their battle with President Joe Biden over the nation’s debt limit.

In Michigan, as reported by the Washington Post, a county government was taken over by MAGA enthusiasts who showed far more enthusiasm for changing their motto than governing.

Right here in Kansas, Republican legislative leaders have reacted to a blizzard of vetoes from Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly with bewildering rhetoric claiming she was high, doesn’t care about families and supports a radical agenda. These same leaders have rushed to pass fiscally perilous tax bills and voucher programs meant to destroy public education.

These folks are not Republicans, at least not the kind our country has known and occasionally loved for decades. They aren’t sensible, coherent leaders with a penchant for fiscal responsibility and traditional values. They aren’t pragmatic partners with whom one can sit down and hash out a compromise.

These are arsonists.

In D.C. and Michigan and Kansas, they harangue their political opponents, all while arguing against the interests and wishes of their own voters. They demand acquiescence, and if they don’t get it they redraw districts and change state constitutions.

If those ploys fail? Burn it all down. Set fire to the system and voters’ trust in their institutions until nothing remains but charred wreckage.

Everyday voters and hacky political commentators might ask: Why can’t Democrats and moderate Republicans work out reasonable deals with their peers? Why can’t everyone come together for the good of Kansans and Americans more generally? Hasn’t everyone had enough of this pointless division and these ideological games?

These are good questions. But they assume everyone serving in government has a common interest in solving problems.

Arsonists don’t want to solve problems. They want to burn down your house.


Gov. Laura Kelly appears at an April 24, 2023, news conference at Elmont Elementary School north of Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Salty statements

Just read some of these recent quotes about Gov. Laura Kelly from House leadership. They have all been excerpted from statements issued after she vetoed various pieces of rightwing agitprop.

None of these statements suggest that House Speaker Dan Hawkins eagerly awaits the opportunity to work with Kelly in this week’s veto session. Instead, they read like so many ransom notes, demanding acquiescence from a women who has twice defeated GOP candidates in statewide elections.

The people of Kansas have chosen Kelly to serve as the state’s chief executive for eight years. She has a mandate to govern, no matter the eagerness of those in the Statehouse to set legislative fires.

The House and Senate could have legalized medical marijuana or expanded KanCare this session. Either issue could be handled in a conservative way. Other deep-red states have managed to do so, and Kelly would likely welcome the opportunity for truly bipartisan accomplishments.

Leaders chose another, more incendiary direction.

The worst-kept secret in Kansas political circles is that a number of Republican legislators insist privately that they don’t endorse this approach. They yearn for a more deliberative process and healthier outcomes. Here’s the problem: Unless these legislators actually vote their consciences, they’re pouring kerosene on the blaze.


Former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, a former U.S. senator from Kansas, is preparing to undergo treatment Monday for lung cancer. (Pool photo by Olivier Douliery/Getty Images)
Former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole didn’t hide the fact that he was a Republican. But he found ways to collaborate with Democrats on legislation. (Pool photo by Olivier Douliery/Getty Images)

Fundamental divide

I’ve watched Kansas state government for years now and come to a single big conclusion.

The fundamental split, like the one we’re seeing right now, isn’t between Democrats and Republicans. Accomplished and caring legislators hail from both sides of the aisle. No, I see division between those who work to make people’s lives better — however you might define that — and those who simply want to destroy.

The one and only Bob Dole may have been disliked by Democrats in his time. Coming from a family of union members and educators, as I do, I heard plenty of grumbling about the Kansas senator as a lad. But as U.S. Senate majority leader, he also understood how to actually pass legislation and work with members of the other party.

He understood that the point of government is to govern. It’s to build upon the accomplishments of those who came before us to create something even better.

At times, perhaps, that preexisting structure needs to change. The door that once only let opposite-sex couples enter could be widened to allow same-sex couples through as well. In the past, whole wings of this imaginary building were rightly razed to end slavery.

But hoping for a new Civil War — whatever the reason — strikes me as unwise and profoundly unconservative. Making a better state and country through existing mechanisms may take time and effort, but it also builds support and lasting civility.

Folks on the left fell into this trap during the pandemic, with some calling for a radical reshaping of society, and even ending capitalism altogether. Listen, if you want to be a revolutionary I’m not going to stop you, but even those who take vaccines and support the scientific method didn’t sign up to join a collective farm.

Democratic politicians didn’t take the bait, though. President Joe Biden declared the pandemic over and moved on.

Rightwing extremists, on the other hand, actually serve in office and wield tremendous power.

In D.C., Michigan and Kansas, they have crowed about their boxes full of matches, ready to spark infernos at a moment’s notice. Moderate Republicans and Democrats have buckets at the ready, but their efforts may not be enough to keep the flames at bay. Our state’s budget, school system and reputation as a free state hang in the balance.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.