Dave Helling

Pat Roberts’ retirement is a generational shift in Kansas politics. What comes next?

Kansas Republican Pat Roberts announces retirement

Senator Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, held hands with his wife, Franki Roberts, as he approached a podium to announce that he would retire from public service at the end of his current term.
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Senator Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, held hands with his wife, Franki Roberts, as he approached a podium to announce that he would retire from public service at the end of his current term.

Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas was pretty clear Friday in explaining his decision to forgo another campaign in 2020.

“I just think it’s time,” he told reporters in Manhattan.

He’s right about that, of course.

Four decades in Washington is long enough. There’s a thin line between helpful experience and atrophy, and Roberts has approached it on more than one occasion.

On Friday, Roberts pointed with pride to work on eight farm bills during his time in office. Eight? Do farmers really need that much help? Is there a better way to protect the food supply?

Roberts isn’t the right guy to provide answers to those questions. In his world, there have always been farm bills, and there will always be farm bills. Congress just fills in the blanks.

That isn’t what America will need from its government in the years to come. Fresh eyes will be essential and welcome.

Who will provide those fresh eyes? Jeff Coyler? Kris Kobach? Mike Pompeo? A Democrat?

Kansans can relax: The race will sort itself out in the months to come. For now, it seems more important that someone will replace Roberts, someone who can offer new answers to old questions.

Finding that replacement will be a better process if we all agree now to a real Senate campaign, based on real issues and real answers. Real debates. Real people.

That means trashing political postcards with meaningless, audience-tested themes. It means ignoring silly television ads and fake news on social media. It means conversations with friends and family — and, if we’re lucky, discarding partisan labels and tribal prejudice.

U.S. Senate seats don’t open up in Kansas very often, after all. Roberts’ decision provides the opportunity for Kansans to really decide what they want from their federal government.

I know, I know. The contest for the last open Senate seat in Kansas was a disaster, with Jerry Moran and Todd Tiahrt wrestling over who was tougher on immigrants. It’s likely, maybe probable, that the 2020 race will mirror that debacle.

But Roberts’ decision is more than political. It’s generational: The last Kansas statewide officeholder of the 20th century will soon join Bob Dole, Sam Brownback, Nancy Kassebaum and others in the history books.

Kansans can’t live in the history books. They must live in the here and now. Health care, the social safety net, national security, jobs, taxes, debt, immigration, even agriculture are all on the table — all inescapable challenges for my kids, their kids and your kids, too.

Roberts seemed to sense some of this Friday. “Politics has changed,” he said more than once. He was referring to the common criticisms of Congress: too partisan, too dysfunctional.

Then there’s President Donald Trump at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s hard to get excited about another term with that guy.

But I’ve known Pat since his first year in Congress, and I’d like to think he had a bigger idea in mind: Our experiment in self-government is always bigger than any one man or woman.

It’s just time to give someone else a chance. Roberts made the right choice.

Dave Helling has covered politics in Kansas and Missouri for four decades. He has worked in television news, and is a regular contributor to local broadcast programs. Helling writes editorials for the Star, and a weekly column. He was awarded the 2018 ASNE Burl Osborne award for editorial leadership.
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