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SPOTLIGHT
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An erosion of authenticity

Published on -8/31/2014, 4:39 PM

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These three little words work magic in marriage and in politics, but Kansas voters should never expect to hear Gov. Sam Brownback utter them: "I was wrong."

A few weeks ago, 95,000 Republicans gave Brownback's unknown primary opponent their vote. That was three of every eight Republican primary voters, the second largest anti-incumbent vote for governor in more than 50 years.

Many observers have explained this discontent with Brownback as a protest vote. Republicans were expressing their opposition to the governor's tax experiment that has brought on unprecedented deficit spending, depleted balances, soaring debt and downgraded credit, higher sales taxes and property taxes, lagging economic growth, and inadequate funding of the state's primary obligation, public education.

Opposition to Brownback's policies on these issues and others likely does explain much of his dismal primary showing. However, Kansans' view of Brownback fell sharply early in his governorship, well before his tax experiment took hold.

Brownback's approval ratings plunged into the mid-30s shortly after his first year in office and, based on recent polling, have not recovered. More than 50 percent of likely Kansas voters express an unfavorable view of Brownback.

Two and a half years of photo ops, press releases and shallow rationalizations from the governor's office have not shaken these low ratings. Nor has a million dollars of TV ads underwritten by undisclosed donors on Brownback's behalf.

In his uphill struggle for re-election, Brownback might be facing something more fundamental, more personal, than policy and that is an erosion of authenticity, the ability to face reality and admit a mistake. To say: "I was wrong." Examples abound.

Early last year, when Brownback was talking up his tax cuts, he used state spending numbers that were $2 billion off the mark. Did the governor take responsibility and tell Kansans he had made a mistake? No, his budget director took the fall, saying he, not the governor, was to blame for bad numbers.

More recently when the two pre-eminent national bond rating agencies stated tax cuts had placed Kansas on an unsustainable course and downgraded state debt, did the governor acknowledge reality, that adjustments might be required? No, he declared the rating agencies were wrong; they did not understand that economic growth would produce abundant new revenues.

And when state tax revenues plummeted by $700 million last year, $330 million more than the governor and state lawmakers had budgeted only a few months ago, did Brownback say he had erred? No, of course not. He said Obama was to blame.

Effective leaders build trust through actions that show authenticity and accountability. That trust enhances leadership and allows followers to forgive and forget missteps along the way.

Contrast the credibility Pope Francis has cultivated through acts of humility and transparency in 17 short months with the faux apologies offered by the former pope on Muslims, or Bush on torture, or Clinton on sex.

Brownback's actions have eroded his authenticity.

Given this personal deficit, Brownback and his campaign strategists now realize the only hope for re-election is to relentlessly hammer their Democratic opponent, Paul Davis, and try to drive Davis' standing with voters even lower than the governor's.

This onslaught already has begun, and Kansas voters should gird themselves for a barrage of half-truths, distortions and spin throughout the next two months. Voters will be challenged to sort through this bombardment and determine who to trust with the state's future.

H. Edward Flentje is professor emeritus at Wichita State University.

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