Government & Politics

Dave Helling: Heavens to Murgatroyd — Nixon and Brownback exit the national spotlight, stage left

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback AP

Eleven months ago, Gov. Jay Nixon took a trip to Iowa to look at an ethanol plant.

The visit touched off a smattering of speculation about Nixon’s intentions. Was he thinking of higher office?

The chatter wasn’t completely irrational. Nixon won re-election as a Democrat in an increasingly Republican state. Perhaps he was just the kind of centrist his party would need in 2016.

Less than a month later: Ferguson. So much for Jay-on-the-ticket talk.

Gov. Sam Brownback’s presidential ambitions have always been explicit. Many Kansans still believe the governor’s controversial policies were designed for a 2016 or 2020 White House bid.

That’s over. Brownback now has more problems on the comics page than on the front page.

It’s hard to imagine two governors whose national profiles have fallen so far, so quickly.

They are very dissimilar. Nixon is feisty with the press and public, visible and aggressive. Brownback can be aloof. And their crises are different: Nixon fumbled while responding to unforeseen events, while nothing was more predictable than the current quagmire in Kansas.

Yet both men watched as their national profiles melted like a summer Bomb Pop, and likely for the same reason: both Nixon and Brownback seem overly isolated, surrounded by aides and advisers unable to puncture either politician’s healthy self-esteem.

That’s why Nixon was slow to respond to Ferguson. He underestimated the rage in that city, while overestimating his support among African-Americans there. His now-legendary bumbling news conference — the event that, more than anything else, ended his national aspirations — was caused by a governor so confident in his own game he didn’t feel the need to hear from those who might have advised a more focused approach.

Brownback’s collapse has been even more epic. Analysts and reporters began questioning the Kansas tax cuts two years ago. That’s when the governor needed to hear from someone in his office — anyone — who could suggest a slight change of course.

Doesn’t seem like that happened. Brownback, like Nixon, likely concluded he was smart enough to outwit all the skeptics. Now he’s a late-night joke.

Climbing the highest rungs in American politics takes ambition, smarts, money, luck. It also requires enough humility to know you don’t have all the answers.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to

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