Wednesday, May 23, 2018


At first glance, the result in this Kentucky state legislative election seems like a big deal:
... Rockcastle County High School math teacher R. Travis Brenda narrowly defeated House Majority Floor Leader Jonathan Shell of Garrard County in one of the most-watched races for the state House....

Brenda tried in the Republican primary election for the 71st House District seat to capitalize on teacher anger against legislators who backed a controversial pension bill in this year's law-making session. It was Brenda's first bid for public office.

Shell, a farmer who has occupied the seat since 2012 and had the backing of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell as a potential rising star in the GOP, played a prominent role in handling the pension bill in the legislature.

The measure sparked a backlash of frustration by thousands of teachers who held protests at the Capitol.
New York magazine's Eric Levitz thinks this "could transform the GOP."
... a recent analysis of public opinion data by the political scientist Larry Bartels found that “a majority of Republicans endorse government efforts to regulate pollution, provide a decent standard of living for people unable to work, and ensure access to good health care.” That finding is buttressed by the past two years of polling on the Republican rank and file’s views about supply-side tax cuts (they’re against them) and federal spending on health care (they want more of it), and validated by Voter Study Group data showing that more than 70 percent of 2016 voters held left-of-center opinions on economic policy.

To this point, GOP officeholders have paid little price for defying their voters’ preferences on fiscal policy....

But Brenda’s victory is, nonetheless, potentially transformative.....

If economically progressive Republicans start to contest the party’s fiscal agenda — from inside its own tent — the GOP could quickly become a less reliable mercenary in the one percent’s class war.
But we have no reason to believe that Brenda is "economically progressive." Nor do we have any reason to believe that about the Republican voters who chose him.

I'm not expressing skepticism because Brenda is culturally conservative. Yes, on his campaign site he boasts about his Christian faith, opposition to abortion, and support for the Second Amendment. It's possible that someone could be all those things and be economically progressive -- I've long wondered what would happen to America if blue-collar cultural conservatives rediscovered the economically progressive ideas many of their forebears had eighty or a hundred years ago. (They seem to have discovered right-wing nativist populism instead.)

I question whether Travis Brenda is economically enlightened at all. As Levitz notes, "Brenda did not run on a promise to transform his state’s fiscal priorities, only to restore its public workers’ pensions."

I suspect that Brenda, who calls himself "a lifelong conservative," is doing what conservatives often do when an issue hits home for them: He's become liberal on that issue alone, because it matters to him. It's comparable to Dick Cheney's endorsement of same-sex marriage a decade ago -- yay for him, but he became enlightened only because it was an important issue for his lesbian daughter. Apart from that, it's unimaginable that Cheney would have expressed the same opinion.

Brenda doesn't like the GOP fiscal policies that led to pension cuts for people like him. But if he's elected, will he recognize that conservatism's obsession with tax cuts, especially for the wealthy, is causing harm to ordinary Kentuckians who aren't counting on government pensions? Or will he continue to assume that tax cuts are good, that the particular benefits he wants can be painlessly restored by cutting "waste, fraud, and abuse," and that the suffering of others as a result of right-wing economic orthodoxy is just fine?

I shouldn't jump to conclusions. Brenda may understand the problem better than I think he does, or he may begin to understand it once he's in office, assuming he wins the general election. For now, however, even though this is a timely warning to mainstream Republicans that they should stop putting the squeeze on public education, it might not change Republican thinking very much at all.

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