Is having more choices at the ballot box worth all the trouble?

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

The unspoken question in Judge James Moody’s Eastern District courtroom Monday was, how much trouble should the election process undergo to accommodate candidates who aren’t going to win anyway, and also to accommodate Arkansans who want to vote for them?

The case, Moore v. Martin, involves two Marks. One is Mark Moore of Pea Ridge, an independent candidate – not a member of any party – who collected 39 percent of the vote in a two-person state legislative race in 2012 and wanted to run for lieutenant governor in 2014. The other is Mark Martin, who as secretary of state is the official in charge of elections, thereby making him the defendant.

The case concerns Act 1356 of 2013, which requires independent candidates to submit their required number of signatures when they file for election. In 2014, that meant they had to qualify by March 3, two months before the Republicans and Democrats held their primaries to choose their candidates. Under previous law, independents could file and then had until May 1 to collect their signatures – 3 percent of qualified voters with a maximum of 10,000 in state races and 2,000 in others. Because the Legislature moved the 2016 primary elections to March, independents this time must collect signatures by November. That’s November 2015, for an election that will occur in November 2016.

Moore says Act 1356 is unfair and unconstitutional. In non-2016 years, independent candidates must collect signatures door to door long before the election in the dead of winter. As a result, argued his attorney, James Linger of Tulsa, the number of independent legislative candidates dropped from seven in 2012 to one in 2014. Court precedent is largely on Moore’s side. In 1976, a three-judge district panel ruled in another Arkansas case, Lendall v. Jernigan, that an April signature deadline for independents was unconstitutional. That decision was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Martin’s attorney, A.J. Kelly, argued that Moore doesn’t have standing – he can’t sue – because he didn’t try to collect signatures in 2014. He pointed out that one legislative candidate did qualify, so the law doesn’t restrict access for those who really want it. Finally, he said an early deadline is justified because it takes time to review signatures to make sure overseas Arkansans can be mailed a ballot before the election.

Watching the proceedings were the chairmen of the Libertarian Party and the Constitution Party. Act 1356 also gives third parties early deadlines. The Libertarians already have submitted their signatures and plan to hold their convention in November to nominate candidates – again, for an election that won’t occur until the next November.

Judge Moody said he’ll render a decision within a couple of weeks. If he bases it on the merits, it’s hard to see how Moore loses. There’s too much court precedent on his side, and there’s no reason to have such an early deadline for submitting signatures. According to Richard Winger, publisher of Ballot Access News, between 1891 and 1955, Arkansas independent candidates needed only 50 signatures for any office, and the petition deadline was 20 days before the general election. I don’t know why legislators voted for Act 1356, but the practical effect is to reduce the chances of anyone challenging their two big parties. But Moody could decide for Martin based on a procedural or technical matter.

A Gallup poll released in July found that 46 percent of Americans consider themselves to be independents. However, the reality is that many who say they are independent reliably vote for one party or the other. Even though the Constitution doesn’t mention political parties, for many structural and psychological reasons, our system gravitates toward having two of them. And so this case is about opening up the process for candidates who probably aren’t going to win.

On the other hand, at one time, the United States had two major political parties, and the Republican Party wasn’t one of them. Our society values giving people choices, in letting ideas flourish, in freedom of speech, and in giving the little guy a chance. Some candidates want to run as neither Republicans nor Democrats. Some voters would like the chance to vote for them. In a nation where consumers have dozens of choices in the cereal aisle, why pass laws that reduce the choices at the ballot box?

So is having more candidates and a more robust debate worth the trouble? We ought to lean toward saying yes, regardless of what a judge decides in this particular case.

Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. Email him at Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.

Kasich, the anti-Trump

By Steve Brwner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

The newest candidate to announce for president is among those I’d most want to see win. Which means he probably won’t.

The reason for both is that Gov. John Kasich, R-Ohio, has a record of doing what I want the next president to do, but which the political system doesn’t reward a candidate for doing: work with others to balance the budget.

Kasich has done it twice, actually. In the late 1990s, he was the chairman of the House Budget Committee when, for all of the other nonsense that was occurring at the time, Congress and President Clinton actually sort of balanced the budget. For a brief time, the national debt wasn’t growing much, and Kasich is a big reason why. Kasich flirted with running for president in 1999 but dropped out and endorsed George W. Bush, who as president failed to keep the nation on a fiscally responsible path.

Kasich was out of office for a while but then returned to public life to run for governor of Ohio in 2010. At the time, Ohio was $8 billion in debt. Today, it has a $2 billion surplus and lower state taxes, though some say this was accomplished at the expense of local governments. In a purple state that can go either Republican or Democrat, Kasich was re-elected with 64 percent of the vote.

Kasich is hard to define and doesn’t always toe the party line, which means he’ll have a tough time winning the Republican nomination. He’s the only candidate who can say he had anything to do with balancing the federal budget, and he did it at the state level as well. But, to many Republicans’ chagrin, he accepted Medicaid money for Ohio – the same money Arkansas turned into the private option – and he talks openly about helping the poor being not just a national moral responsibility, but a personal, spiritual one. He’s changed his position on immigration – but unlike other Republican candidates who’ve also changed their positions, he’s moved toward endorsing a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. In interviews and public appearances, he openly calls himself a flawed human being. In other words, he’s the anti-Donald Trump. Who’s currently leading the Republican polls.

Kasich can be personally combative but also politically cooperative. In his 45-minute announcement speech this week, he never once mentioned Hillary Clinton or President Obama. Instead, he talked about his own biography, the family members who inspired him, and what he would do if he’s elected. So if you want a candidate who at least wants to debate the issues rather than sling mud, here’s your guy.

He’s starting near the bottom of the polls, from which it will be difficult to emerge. The Republicans’ first debate is in Ohio Aug. 6, and because so many (16) have announced, only the top 10 candidates in the national polls will be on stage. It’s probable that Kasich will not reach that plateau in time to qualify for that first debate in his home state.

But if Republicans want to win this next election, they’ll give him a look. Perhaps the most oft-quoted political fact each election cycle is this: No Republican has ever been elected president without winning Ohio. Kasich has won it statewide twice, the second overwhelmingly.

Why is Ohio so important to Republicans? First, it’s a big state with 18 electorate votes, each of which will be precious in an election when so many states are so reliably red or blue.

Second, Republicans who appeal to Ohioans also appeal to other Americans in the middle, like Pennsylvanians, Iowans and Wisconsinites. The state is a microcosm of America – red and blue, Midwestern and urban, home to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and also the only state north of the Mason-Dixon Line with a college football national champion since 1997.

So far, the presidential campaign has offered a lot of what’s not so good about modern American politics – an avalanche of money, political family dynasties, candidates pandering to the base, and Trump’s celebrity-based candidacy. Kasich, as he himself admits, is a flawed man, but he offers three important and sometimes overlooked qualities – competence, sincerity and empathy – along with the chance for Republicans to win the states they must have.

That doesn’t necessarily mean he should be the next president. But surely, in this Republican field, he belongs in the top 10.

Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. Email him at Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.

Clinton, Trump: Some things are inevitable

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

This past week in politics was all about the inevitable: a gaffe by Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton’s march to the Democratic nomination.

Trump spoke before a crowd of 1,000 at the Republican Party of Arkansas’ annual Reagan-Rockefeller Dinner, where he exceeded my expectations. His speech was funny and entertaining, and he handled the media well in a press conference. I left thinking he would be a factor until the crowded GOP field shrinks and the party’s support coalesces around a more acceptable candidate.

Then on Saturday, Trump said that Sen. John McCain, who spent 5.5 years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, is not a war hero. His explanation – “I like people who weren’t captured” – was an insult to all prisoners of war. Trump later said he didn’t serve in Vietnam because he had bone spurs in his heels.

You don’t insult veterans, especially if you did not serve. The reaction was swift. Many Republican candidates condemned the remarks. So did the Republican National Committee, which indicates it was waiting for the opportunity.

So that’s probably enough about Donald Trump.

Clinton did not say anything particularly memorable Saturday speaking before 2,500 Arkansas Democrats at their Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Little Rock. She also did not put her foot in her mouth, which is why, come next spring, she’ll still be in the race.

Because we all want campaigns to be interesting, there’s some talk about Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont socialist who is making Clinton work a little for the nomination.

That’s a temporary flirtation. Some Democrats want to send a message to Clinton, the former member of Walmart’s board of directors whom they believe also is too close to Wall Street. She’s the party’s nominee.

She is not, inevitably, the next president. Republicans have some advantages going into the 2016 election. The country tends to swap parties every eight years. Republicans are raising a lot of money. And of course, Clinton has a long public record they can attack.

But there are at least three reasons why it’s more likely she’ll win than lose.

One is that Democrats have an advantage in the Electoral College. It takes 270 votes to win the election, and in each of the last six of them, Democrats have won at least the same 18 states and the District of Columbia, a coalition worth 242 votes. If that trend holds – and it won’t necessarily – then Clinton needs only to find 28 votes elsewhere. Republicans, meanwhile, have won the same 13 states six straight times for a total of only 102 votes. That’s a big gap, though it narrows when only the last four elections are included.

Another Clinton advantage comes from the Democrats’ long-standing lead among minorities, and Republicans’ failure to change that – or lately, even to try. According to the University of Connecticut’s Roper Center, President Obama in 2012 won 93 percent of African-Americans’ votes and 71 percent among the fast-growing Hispanic population. Mitt Romney won among whites, 59-39.

Those percentages are not that different from 1984, when Ronald Reagan won 49 states. But in 1984, whites made up 86 percent of voters, compared to 72 percent in 2012, and that number will continue to shrink. No wonder Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican presidential candidate, once said his party is in a “demographic death spiral.”

Republicans must win more votes among minorities. If they don’t, they’ll still compete well in mid-term elections, when older white Americans compose a disproportionate share of the electorate. But they’ll lose a lot of presidential elections. And frankly, they’ll deserve to.

Clinton’s final advantage is that the United States is in the midst of a major cultural shift. Voters have elected and re-elected the first black president. The Supreme Court legalized gay marriage with the support of six in 10 Americans. Many Americans even expressed support for Caitlyn Jenner’s gender identity switch. If the election is seen as a choice between breaking the glass ceiling with a female nominee and voting for yet another guy named Bush, the trend would favor Clinton.

There’s a significant percentage of voters who don’t merely oppose Obama, but despise him, and they spend a lot of time thinking and talking about how much they despise him. Many of those people feel the same way about Clinton.

They should reconsider their perspective lest they spend 16 years of their life mad all the time. Clinton’s election is not inevitable, but it’s more than half likely.

Next GOP presidential candidate in Arkansas? Ted Cruz

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz will be the next Republican presidential candidate to visit Arkansas. The Texas senator will appear August 12 at the Crawford County Lincoln Day Dinner.

The news was confirmed at the Reagan-Rockefeller Dinner Friday in Hot Springs following the appearance there by businessman Donald Trump. Trump drew a crowd of 1,000 Republicans to hear him proclaim himself the best candidate for the job because of his deal-making ability and because he won’t accept outside campaign donations.

The visit by Cruz will be the third by a Republican presidential candidate this year. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee announced he was running for president May 5.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will speak at the party’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner Saturday.

No good options in Iran

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

The question is not whether the deal struck between the American-led coalition and Iran is a good option. The question is, is it the least worse of a lot of bad options?

The deal would cut in half Iran’s number of centrifuges, require it to redesign one of its reactors, and allow inspections. In return, economic sanctions would be lifted, Iran eventually would be allowed to import and export conventional weapons, and after periods of years it could research advanced centrifuges and produce unlimited amounts of nuclear fuel. Supposedly in the short-term, the deal expands the “breakout time” – how long Iran would need to produce enough fuel to build its first bomb – to at least a year. The long term is a different story.

Iran is a fundamentalist Islamic state that sponsors terrorism, uses “Death to America” as a rallying cry, and seeks to destroy Israel. Its previous president was probably the world’s leading Holocaust denier. It’s the country that 35 years ago was holding hundreds of Americans hostage. Any deal with this country – especially one that lets it keep its nuclear program – must be a bad one.

On the other hand, will the currently imposed sanctions prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon forever? They haven’t stopped it from getting close now. Moreover, sanctions cause significant hardship for average Iranians, who, TV images to the contrary, are mostly going about their lives and have little influence over their leaders. If staying with the sanctions won’t stop Iran from eventually obtaining a bomb, then that’s a bad option, too.

How about increasing the sanctions – make them even tougher, so that the Iranians really suffer? That option leads to some difficult moral questions, it’s bad PR, and most importantly, the rest of the international community won’t support it. So it’s probably out.

That leaves war – not the video game kind, but the real kind, like the conflicts the United States hasn’t been able to completely stop fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan since the early 2000s. Anybody who wants war should be prepared to drive down to the military recruiting station and sign up. That’s not many of us.

I do not fault President Obama for choosing bad option number one. Every day he hears a briefing about the world situation that, the evidence has clearly shown through the past few presidents, turns a person’s hair gray. He concluded that continuing bad option number two, the sanctions, would not stop Iran from developing a bomb, and the best alternative is to get into that country and inspect.

Nor do I fault Arkansas’ congressional delegation for its opposition – including Sen. Tom Cotton, who attracted a lot of attention earlier this year with his open letter to Iran warning the ayatollah that any deal could be rescinded by the next president.

Diplomacy is not Cotton’s strong suit, but who can blame him for planting the flag on this one? Regardless of which bad option we dislike the least, we all are horrified at the prospect of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. If an officeholder truly believes this deal makes that more likely, he or she must fight it with every tool available.

It should be pointed out that the deal did not provide for four American hostages: pastor Saeed Abedini, imprisoned for being a Christian; Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian; former Marine Amir Hekmati, who was visiting his family in Tehran when he was abducted; and Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent and CIA contractor who vanished in Iran in 2007 and whose whereabouts are not publicly known.

Of all the big, bad, scary things in the world right now, a terrorist obtaining a nuclear weapon is the biggest, baddest, and scariest.

One reason it’s the scariest is that it seems almost inevitable. Someday in some part of the world, something terrible eventually will happen. The national debt? Maybe we’ll start paying it down. Climate change? Maybe the scientists are wrong. But to prevent nuclear terrorism, the good guys must pitch a perfect game from now until mankind is no longer here.

Because nobody is perfect, the best we probably can hope for is to keep pushing that terrible day back as long as we can without giving up everything that matters in the process. And so presidents and members of Congress will continue to choose from bad options, trying to select the least wrong one.

In Greece and the U.S., economies are based on trust

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Remember the bank run scene in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”? George and Mary are traveling to their honeymoon when they see a crowd gathering outside the bank. George runs to the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan to find a crowd of worried customers wanting to withdraw their savings. He explains to them how financial institutions work. (“The money’s not here. Why, your money’s in Joe’s house … and in a hundred others.”) Then he begs them not to panic and starts handing out his own $2,000 in honeymoon savings to tide them over. Meanwhile, across town, Mr. Potter, the richest (monetarily) and most powerful man in town has just become richer and more powerful by taking control of the bank, which would be shut down for a week.

That scene is unfolding on a national scale in Greece.

In a nutshell, Greece’s debt has reached 180 percent of its gross domestic product, it’s not paying its bills, and the patience of its European creditors is wearing thin. Previous loan terms have required the Greek government to impose higher taxes and cut government spending, but the country is still mired in debt. The economy is collapsing. Unemployment is 28 percent. The banks have been closed, and Greeks have been limited to withdrawing the equivalent of $67 per day from their ATMs. On July 5, the Greek people defiantly voted not to accept the terms of a previous bailout proposal. It accomplished little but to strain the tolerance of their creditors, who forced Greek’s prime minister to accept an even worse deal.

Bankrupt debtors don’t get to set the rules.

International economics is above my pay grade. If you’ll pardon the pun, it’s mostly Greek to me.

Here’s what I know: Economies are based on trust. You and I work because we trust we’ll be paid. We deposit our money in banks trusting it will be there if we need it – without considering what would happen if everyone needed it at once. Trust is the basis for loans, investments and insurance. With it, an economy has a strong foundation. Without it, an economy becomes a house of cards.

The United States can’t yet be compared to Greece. America’s debt-to-GDP ratio is 103 percent. It’s still the world’s most dynamic economic engine, with abundant and untapped resources.

But let’s go there anyway. America’s national debt is now $18.2 trillion, or $57,000 for every American man, woman and child. In 1981, just 34 years ago, it was less than $1 trillion. Because of currently unfunded liabilities, that $18.2 trillion is projected to grow much larger. Meanwhile, the political system – long an inspiration to other parts of the world – has become incapable of doing anything about all this.

This behavior should be hurting the United States much worse than it is. One reason it’s not is because American taxpayers are paying very little interest on the debt. Why? Because investors see the United States government as one of the world’s safest places to store their money.

And that should concern us. If economies are based on trust, then what does it say about a global economy when one of the world’s most trustworthy investments is the one described two paragraphs ago?

It’s not just Greece or the United States that have issues. China’s stock market has been in a free fall lately, and Puerto Rico is practically bankrupt. In a global economy, what happens in these places matters, because, metaphorically speaking, our money isn’t just in Joe’s house. It’s also in Qiao’s.

In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey prevented a panic by talking sense into his depositors and by handing out his own money. The building and loan survived that day because of the trust he had built.

But there are two realities that can’t be ignored. One is that trust can be lost very quickly. Had George failed to keep his institution open in the coming days, his customers would have pledged their loyalty to Mr. Potter, the powerful autocrat down the road who offered a little temporary security in exchange for some of their wealth and freedom.

The other reality is this: George Bailey was a fictional character. If trust in the real economy – domestic or global, there’s not much difference now – is lost, it’s going to take a lot more than an impassioned speech and $2,000 to calm people’s fears.

Talking religion and politics

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

You know that old saying, “Don’t talk about religion or politics in polite company?” It would be hard to agree to that as a columnist after these past couple of weeks, when so much has happened involving both.

Start with gay marriage. The Supreme Court’s declaration that it’s now the law of the land hasn’t completely settled things in Arkansas. One county clerk resigned rather than issue licenses, and one pledged to fight but then changed her mind. Meanwhile, the issue has created a division between Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who says the Court’s ruling is final, and others, particularly Sen. Jason Rapart, R-Conway, who say it’s not.

It is. Gay marriage will remain legal. It’s not just the Supreme Court that has spoken in this case, but popular opinion. Six out of 10 Americans support it. Support is even higher among younger Americans, who, as time passes, will compose more and more of the other four.

Instead, the real issue is the tension between two government aims that are competing in this case: preventing discrimination and protecting religious liberty. In Oregon, a baker who declined to participate in a gay marriage ceremony was ordered to pay the offended couple $135,000. In Kentucky, a t-shirt company that declined to promote a gay pride event won its case because the judge ruled it acted on the basis of the owner’s beliefs, not because of discrimination.

This is going to be a big argument, it’s going to be heated, and it’s going to last a while.

Meanwhile, another religious controversy arose this week over the Legislature’s decision, with the governor’s signature, to erect a monument to the 10 Commandments on the Capitol grounds. Extremely predictably, other groups, including Satanists, say they also might want monuments. Asked about the controversy, Hutchinson said everybody can’t have a monument and that the 10 Commandments are historically relevant to Arkansas in a way that other groups’ monuments would not be.

Finally, Hutchinson on Tuesday announced that a multi-faith statewide summit will happen this August in Little Rock to call houses of worship to act in two areas – finding foster homes for the 1,900 Arkansas children who have no place to stay, and helping the 6,000 inmates who will leave prison this year reintegrate into society. A steering committee composed mostly of Christians but also of two Jewish rabbis and a Muslim imam has been planning the event,

Asked by reporters, Hutchinson, an attorney, acknowledged that a partnership between churches and state is involved. Yes, he said, people of faith will have a faith-based motivation for participating. Yes, he said, state resources are being used to help organize and promote faith-based activities.

It’s early, but so far, no one has really complained. Maybe we’re too busy fighting over other things. Maybe all but the most hard-core among us recognize that the needs are so great that they’re willing to accept a little church-state partnering in order to provide homes for those kids and a second chance for those inmates. Some things are more important than our political arguments. So proceed with caution, Governor, but please proceed.

A chasm is widening between Americans who see the world very differently. What a person believes about legal issues like gay marriage often depends on how they personally feel about homosexuality or about Christians.

That is not how the Constitution is supposed to be interpreted. The real question should be, what is the role of government in enforcing social norms and in controlling behaviors and beliefs?

And the answer in a free society should be, as small a role as possible. Really, it’s best for all of us if we live and let live, and try to avoid using judges, law enforcement and the IRS to try to make people believe what we want them to believe.

It could be argued persuasively that this widening chasm is good for religion, which grows stale when it’s too acceptable. It’s definitely bad for politics, which in a country like ours requires people from different backgrounds to meet in the middle. The next president will have an impossible job.

Oh, well. Maybe sometimes we should just talk about the weather in polite company. There’s an old saying about it, too. In Arkansas, if you don’t like it, just wait, because it will change.

As do other things.

A marvelous day in a Marvell school

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

My wife would NOT stop talking Monday night.

She’d just returned from Marvell, a Delta farming community where she was writing a story for an education magazine I publish. The elementary school has an all-day summer program for students in danger of falling behind, which, in a school where 97 percent receive free and reduced price lunches, is a lot of them.

She wanted to tell us about all she’d seen. Enthusiastic teachers and college interns were going to war alongside these kids to fight for their futures. A teacher gave a student a high-five after he correctly identified the preposition and object of the preposition in a sentence. Kids were reading because they wanted to. The youngest students were being tutored – by third graders, who seemed to know what they were doing.

The program clearly is improving student performance and test scores. Under the leadership of its stick-of-dynamite principal, Sylvia Moore, the school had gone from occupying a permanent place on the state’s school improvement list to scoring an “A” on the state’s report card.

My wife saw a lot of smiles and laughter during her marvelous day in Marvell. Her heart melted when a kindergarten student told her she loved her. She laughed as she recounted the young male students’ antics. If she’d been offered a job, I think we would have at least had a discussion about moving to Marvell.

Marvell is not the only school district worth talking about. Flippin has made addressing dyslexia a school priority. As a result, previously struggling students now are excelling, and discipline problems are way down. In Greenbrier, students are earning two-year associate’s degrees along with their high school diplomas, saving their families a bundle on college tuition costs. The chancellor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock actually handed them their degrees during the high school’s graduation ceremonies this spring. In Warren, grade levels are being blurred so that students advance whenever they’ve learned the material, not because they’re waiting for a page on the calendar to turn (or because the page has already turned). At Maumelle High, students declare what amounts to a major so their schooling can be tailored to their strengths and interests.

The point is not that all schools are excelling. On objective measurements, American students are not as prepared as many of their foreign counterparts to compete in a global economy. On the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment, American students ranked 27th among 34 developed countries in math and 17th in reading. That’s happening despite the fact that American taxpayers spent more per student than many other countries – actually, $621 billion in 2011-12, or $12,401 per student in 2013-14 dollars, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

But there are helpful takeaways from what Marvell and other school districts are doing. One is that many students might do better with a shorter summer break. In Marvell, there’s a dramatic difference in learning readiness at the beginning of the fall semester between students who attended summer school and those who spent the summer watching TV. Students are tracked regarding their progress in literacy. Few things are more discouraging than seeing that a student has regressed when he or she returns in the fall.

The second takeaway is that schools can do some great things when given a chance to experiment. They should be given that chance, even though experiments sometimes fail.

The third is that more is happening in education than the ongoing debate about Common Core, or whatever everybody is arguing about this week. Some things actually are positive, or at least hopeful, and if we’d all click off Facebook, turn off cable news, and go visit one of these schools (without listening to a screaming radio talk show host along the way), we might at least get a balanced view of things.

Skepticism is the ally of a free society; cynicism is an enemy of it. When we sit safely behind our computer screens and coffee mugs and murmur with people who agree with us, we see only problems – and people to blame. It’s only when we emerge from those hiding places that we see that good things are actually happening. That’s when we have hope, and when we have hope, we might act.

At the very least, we might have something positive to talk about.

One state’s chaotic, creative conservatism

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

If I were to tell you that a state legislature this year passed a six-cent gas tax increase. abolished the death penalty, and voted to let young illegal immigrants brought by their parents to America obtain a driver’s license, what state would you guess that would be? California? Massachusetts? Maybe Colorado?

Try Nebraska.

Yep. The Midwestern state where three-fourths of the legislators are Republicans did all of those things. In fact, legislators overrode their newly elected Republican governor’s veto on all three bills.

This column has an Arkansas connection, but first, what’s up with Nebraska?

The sponsor of the gas tax increase, Sen. Jim Smith, told me the bill was simply an acceptance of financial reality. The roads needed more money, and legislators didn’t trust Congress to help. Two of Nebraska’s neighbors, Iowa and South Dakota, also raised their gas taxes this year.

Regarding the death penalty ban, which he voted against, he said some Nebraska legislators are Catholic, and the Church opposes the death penalty. Also, a number of Nebraska legislators are libertarian Republicans, which means they tend to distrust government in all walks of life, including social issues. As another Nebraska lawmaker explained, if she doesn’t trust government to manage her health care, she shouldn’t trust it to put someone to death.

As for young illegal immigrants with driver’s licenses, Nebraska was the only state that had such a ban. The thinking in ending it was, the residents have a legal status under President Obama’s executive order, and they need to be able to drive in order to get to work.

There are two other things worth noting about Nebraska. While its lawmakers are Republicans and Democrats, it’s the only state where they don’t run with a party label attached. Consequently, Smith said, “We have 49 independent contractors.”

Also, Nebraska is the only state with a unicameral legislature – in other words, just a Senate with no House. While Arkansas has 135 legislators, Nebraska has 49. While Arkansas lawmakers considered 2,200 bills and passed 1,288 into law this year, Nebraska legislators only considered about 600 bills and passed about 240 into law. Could a more focused agenda help legislators engage in serious debates about big issues? Just a thought.

Here’s another reason why I’m writing about Nebraska. Republicans everywhere tend to be ideologically unified. Officeholders tend not to wander too far from party orthodoxy, even when they want to, lest they be labeled a “RINO” (Republican In Name Only) and draw a primary opponent. Republican commentators, meanwhile, are so predictable that there’s usually little point in seeing what they have to say. Democrats, long the more disorganized party, are becoming more unified, too, but this column is not about them.

And yet in Nebraska, a legislature full of Republicans passed bills that raised the gas tax, ended the death penalty, and made life easier for illegal immigrants. Those are not the standard conservative positions, but it’s not hard to see the gas tax as pro-commerce, the death penalty ban as anti-government, and the driver’s license bill as pro-personal responsibility – all principles conservatives say they support.

So if that can happen in one conservative, Republican, mid-America state with an agricultural heritage and only one football team, could it happen in another? As the Republican majority becomes more entrenched in Arkansas, like it’s already entrenched in Nebraska, could we see the emergence of a more creative, chaotic conservatism that applies the party’s principles in new ways?

Certainly, divisions among Arkansas Republicans have already occurred over issues like the Medicaid private option. Some see it as a way to reform government health care, while others see it as capitulation to Obamacare. Arkansas Republicans also will divide along urban and rural lines just like Arkansas Democrats always did, and just like Republicans do in Nebraska.

What other types of factions will form? How often will one faction team up with Democrats? And just how chaotic will it often be? It certainly was chaotic when Democrats had a secure majority.

Maybe this was an unusual year in Nebraska. Maybe it was simply that the time had come for those three bills. Or maybe voters there will send some of those legislators packing during the next election.

Or maybe it’s still possible to buck the party orthodoxy, in either party in any state, if legislators see themselves as independent contractors.

Divided States of America

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Last Monday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson decided to end Arkansas’ participation in the state’s current end-of-the-year Common Core PARCC exam, despite the fact that the State Board of Education had voted to do the opposite. It was only the fourth biggest story of the week.

That’s how much there was to talk about. The Supreme Court’s rulings on gay marriage and the Affordable Care Act, plus the Confederate flag issue, all were more newsworthy than Common Core, which usually gets people’s attention.

These issues run deep. For many Americans, gay marriage is either a fundamental human right, or it’s an attack on traditional marriage and a sin. Obamacare is an acceptable expansion of health insurance, or it’s a government takeover. Great-great-grandfather fought nobly for the South, or Great-great-grandfather was a slave.

There was an air of finality to last week’s developments. Gay marriage is now legal everywhere, and it’s also supported by a growing majority of Americans, particularly those under 30, so politicians calling for massive resistance won’t accomplish much if their goal is to make it illegal again. Obamacare is now firmly entrenched in the health care system, especially with this latest Supreme Court decision. To substantively change anything at the federal level, Republicans would have to win the White House, the House and a 60-vote majority in the Senate, an almost impossible task given the math in 2016. Then they would have to coalesce behind an alternative, which would be even harder. The Confederate flag has far fewer defenders than it did a couple of weeks ago. It’s been removed from Alabama’s Capitol, and even NASCAR’s chairman said he wants his sport “disassociated” from it.

But the arguments will continue, as they always do in a democracy. The debate over gay marriage now shifts to the extent that private individuals and businesses can be compelled by government force to accept it. Obamacare will be the focus of more litigation, and House Republicans will continue to stage votes to repeal it. Regardless of what happens to the Confederate symbol, far deeper substantive divisions will remain over race, justice, and the meaning of the past.

One of the things that’s most frustrating about American politics is that there are issues where we could agree, at least about the problem, if we gave it a shot. Most of us would say it’s wrong to keep adding to the national debt that we’re passing on to our kids, and because money doesn’t grow on trees, the government must over time collect as much money as it spends. We should agree that the country should maintain its highways, control its borders, and manage an orderly immigration system.

Unfortunately, we often can’t take meaningful action on these important areas where we could agree because the debate is so clouded by those important areas where we’ll never agree. Republicans and Democrats in Washington have become like a married couple that can’t stop fighting over the in-laws long enough to call 9-1-1 about their kitchen that’s on fire. Even a commonsense issue like the national debt, which must be addressed by a series of difficult but doable mathematical compromises, becomes enmeshed in the culture war. It’s hard to work with the other guy when you’ve told your supporters he’s a communist or a Nazi.

Increasingly, these United States are looking much more divided, much more tribal, and much more us versus them. Too many of our daily conversations, the media we consume, and our Facebook posts – my goodness, the Facebook posts – are marked by mocking, scornful attitudes towards entire groups of people, often based on beliefs.

And that’s a little scary. You can’t really believe in freedom unless you believe in freedom for those who are different than you, and that’s hard to do for someone you don’t respect. The next step after contempt is control, and control tends to spread like a virus that starts in one part of the body and then multiples until everything is infected.

We’re not all going to get along, but, like a lot of difficult marriages, we can meet in the middle as often as possible for the sake of our kids. No one ever said living in a free society would be easy, but Someone did once say, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” So peace be unto you, even when we don’t agree, and even when we can’t.