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Upping the Senate's intellectual voltage

George Will

By George Will

Published Sept. 20, 2014

Upping the Senate's intellectual voltage
John Steuart Curry's painting, "Tragic Prelude"

SHAWNEE, Kan. -- Tacked to the wall of Greg Orman's campaign office is a print of a John Steuart Curry painting, "Tragic Prelude," that hangs in the capitol in Topeka. It depicts John Brown of Osawatomie, 39 miles south of here, as what he was, a deranged product of "bleeding Kansas," the Civil War's overture. Today, Orman, who is as calm as Brown was crazed, is emblematic of fascinating Kansas.

Orman wants to deny Pat Roberts a fourth Senate term, thereby ending a congressional career that began in 1981 with 16 years in the House. Orman, who favors term limits and pledges to serve only two terms, is running as an independent. The Democrats' nominee has dropped out of the race, so Orman, 45, or Roberts, 78, will be a senator come January. Sensible Kansans have a problematic choice to ponder: Electing Orman would deepen the Senate's pool of talent, but it might thwart Republican efforts to control the Senate.

Kansas has not elected a Democratic senator since 1932 and has voted Republican in 12 consecutive presidential elections. It has, however, had Democratic governors during 28 of the last 50 years, and its Republican senators have often had Bob Dole's "collaborative" (Orman's approving word) style. Orman has made campaign contributions to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Harry Reid, and voted for Obama in 2008 but favored Romney in 2012.

Orman discusses policy problems with a fluency rare among Senate candidates and unusual among senators. From his firmly Republican father, who owns a small furniture store in Stanley, Kansas, Orman acquired an animus against "the beehive of regulations": One regulation is a "pinprick" but cumulatively regulations are akin to "falling into a beehive." He is reading Paul Ryan's new book, and shares Ryan's anxiety about how nearly 60 percent of the federal expenditures are not subject to annual appropriations. He also shares Ryan's dismay that a single mother earning about $20,000 can pay, in effect, a marginal tax rate twice as high as the 39.6 percent top statutory rate on the affluent because she can lose government benefits and incur expenses when she increases her earnings.

Orman is anxious about the deficit explosion that will occur when the cost of government borrowing doubles, as surely it will. ("Deficits are nothing more than deferred taxes.") But when asked about even such a minor change in entitlement spending as the "chained CPI" recalculation of inflation, he is noncommittal. Independent politicians are politicians, too.

In high school, Orman became national president of Boys Nation, which earned in 1986 a Rose Garden ceremony with Ronald Reagan. In 1988, while at Princeton, he did some work for George H.W. Bush's presidential campaign. That year, Orman says, a sight on New York's subway -- two children clinging to their father, who did not seem to feel safe -- quickened his interest in politics, which has occupied more of his life since business success made him wealthy.

In Orman's office here, Princeton's 1991 yearbook is open to the page with his picture. Next to it is a pungent quotation he chose from Ross Perot ("The wimps are us"), who a year later as an independent presidential candidate would receive 19 percent of the popular vote, including 27 percent in Kansas.

Orman, who says he will caucus with whichever party is "clearly" in the majority next year, has a month to clarify "clearly." If in January there are 51 or more Republican senators and 48 Democrats (counting the two "independents" who caucus with them), Orman would join the Republicans. If there are 50 Republicans and 49 Democrats, would Orman conduct an auction: What problem-solving agenda would each party outline to engage him to give it control? (Democrats have Vice President Biden as a tie-breaker.) Orman's "clearly" might indicate his understanding that a narrow Republican majority won in 2014 might evaporate in 2016, when Republicans will be defending 24 seats rather than this year's 15.

The Senate's intellectual voltage would be increased by Orman's election. But improving 1 percent of the Senate is less important than taking 100 percent of Senate control from Harry Reid, who has debased the institution to serve Barack Obama, whose job approval among Kansans is just 40 percent.

Some Kansans will try to calculate whether they can send Orman to a Senate that will be "clearly" controlled by Republicans. So, this campaign is a prelude to a wager with national consequences.

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