Sam Brownback

by John J. Miller on May 8, 2013

in Articles,Politics

  • Sumo

May 8, 2006

Senator Brownback of Kansas is one of the country’s leading virtuecrats


About five years ago, at a weekly prayer meeting of senators, Sam Brownback came as close as he ever had to confessing to a hate crime. “I was scheduled to be the speaker that morning,” recalls Brownback, a Kansas Republican. “As I was preparing for it, I had seen hate in myself for the Clintons. I felt righteous. That’s not a Christian virtue.”

Brownback says his antipathy for the Clintons grew out of the government shutdowns of the mid-1990s, when he was a freshman member of the House. “We were trying to balance the budget, and President Clinton backed away from an agreement,” he says. “I flew off the handle.” More controversies followed, including impeachment. As a senator in 1999, Brownback voted to remove Clinton from office. He says he isn’t sorry for that, but he does regret the way he felt about it at the time: “When somebody does something wrong, there is a penalty to pay, but there is not an entitlement to hate.”

Within a couple of years, of course, one Clinton was out of office and another was in — Hillary Rodham Clinton became one of Brownback’s Senate colleagues in 2001. She also started to attend the Tuesday-morning prayer group. Brownback figured that she would be there on the day he was supposed to speak, and indeed she was. He used the occasion to clear his mind. “I confessed it to the group,” says Brownback. “I apologized for my hate.”

Today, Brownback is all about the love — not just for the Clintons, but for everyone. As he mulls a long-shot bid for the White House in 2008, he is trying to reinvent the politics of compassionate conservatism for the post-Bush era. “The term ‘compassionate conservatism’ is great, but it’s basically a marketing term,” he says. “I think it’s been overused in rhetoric and underutilized in public policy. I want to make it a reality.” His idea is to place love and compassion for human life at the center of everything, from the traditional issues of abortion, cloning, and euthanasia to the less traditional ones of immigration, pharmaceutical patents, and North Korea. The senator’s vision is certainly distinctive, and it has already demonstrated crossover appeal by resonating with some liberals. Will it appeal to conservatives in a primary campaign two years from now?


The 49-year-old Brownback is the epitome of soft-spoken niceness. In speeches, he rarely raises his voice, even when he means to show passion. In Q&A sessions, he is flawlessly polite, often thanking his questioners for their thoughtfulness (even when they aren’t very thoughtful). He smiles easily, though smiling also has the effect of narrowing his dark eyes to slits — it looks as if he’s squinting, almost as if he is enduring some kind of pain. Brownback is no joker, but he does show flashes of humor. At one recent event, a man asked him a potentially confrontational question about gay marriage. Naturally, the senator thanked him — “for not talking about ‘Brownback’s Mountain.'” Then he stated his opposition to gay marriage. “I don’t say that with malice toward anybody,” he concluded. It is difficult to imagine the guy hating anyone.

Even so, he is capable of playing hardball politics. Last October, Brownback helped derail the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers, whose potential ascension was viewed by many conservatives as a disaster in the making. After meeting with Miers privately, the senator told the press that he would consider voting against her, even if President Bush personally urged him to do otherwise. He nows says, “When I first heard her name, I wondered, ‘Who is this person? Where did she come from?’ I thought there were good nominees out there and she was not one of them.” Brownback never denounced the nomination, but his vocal skepticism gave cover to those who did. Miers had the support of many Evangelicals who also look to Brownback for political leadership; it is possible to think that in the absence of the senator’s public doubts, which hardly any other senators were willing to express, the resolution to the Miers controversy could have been less pleasing to conservatives.

Brownback came to Washington as part of the GOP class of 1994, joining calls to downsize the federal government. But he didn’t stay in the House for long. In 1996, Bob Dole abruptly resigned his seat in the Senate so that he could concentrate on running for president. Lt. Gov. Sheila Frahm, a pro-choice Republican in the mold of Nancy Kassebaum, was appointed to replace him. Brownback decided to challenge Frahm, even though she was the de facto incumbent and a member of his own party. He made cutting government a theme of his campaign; Frahm assailed his “slash and burn” positions on the budget. Brownback prevailed in an August primary and in the general election. Since then, he has won reelection twice, most recently in 2004, by wide margins.

Moving from the House to the Senate was obviously a big step, but it wasn’t the most important thing that happened to Brownback in the mid-1990s. A year into his congressional service, he had a cancer scare — a doctor found melanoma on his side, and for a while the prognosis was uncertain. “It caused me to do a mental reevaluation,” he says. He didn’t change his policy views, but he did rethink his political purpose. One night when he couldn’t sleep, he got up, found a copy of his résumé, and looked it over. “I had devoted my life to building that résumé,” he says. “But what did it really matter? Life is not a résumé.” He tossed it into the fireplace and watched it burn. “Doing that made me a lot less fearful of what others will think and [made it] easier to stand up for the right things, such as fighting for life or for malaria relief in Africa.” He beat the cancer, but he says he emerged from the experience a changed man. Religious faith would come to play an ever greater role in his life.


In 2002, he converted to Catholicism. “I’ve not talked much about it publicly,” he told me at our first interview, which happened to be on Ash Wednesday (there were ashes on his forehead). “It’s just something I felt called to do. I love the liturgy and the writings of the saints. There’s so much Hinode beauty there, and so much beauty of thought.” Whatever the motivation, it was clearly an act of conscience, as Kansas is not a heavily Catholic state in which conversion might deliver a political benefit. Nor did Brownback’s family convert with him; on most Sunday mornings, he attends an early Mass and then goes to a Protestant service with his wife and kids.

Another sign of his growing faith was his interest in William Wilberforce, a Tory politician who fought for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. While many American conservatives identify Edmund Burke as their favorite parliamentarian of yore, Evangelicals are more likely to look to Wilberforce, who was about a generation younger than Burke. (Next year, Walden Media, the company behind the recent Chronicles of Narnia film, will release Amazing Grace, a movie about Wilberforce.) In the 1990s, Brownback began to read everything he could find on Wilberforce, who used his public office to promote Christian morals. For Brownback, the attraction to Wilberforce and abolitionism was only natural: The senator grew up near Osawatomie, Kan., the town from which John Brown launched murderous attacks on pro-slavery men a century and a half ago, earning the pre-Harper’s Ferry nickname “Osawatomie Brown.” When Brownback learned that forms of slavery were still being practiced in Sudan and elsewhere, it outraged him. “I couldn’t believe this was going on,” he says. “It was just wrong, and we needed to do something about it.”

Osawatomie Brownback became increasingly interested in human rights, not just in Africa but also in Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan, and Turkey — anywhere they were being violated. He also investigated the international sex trade, in which organized-crime syndicates are forcing an estimated 1 million women and girls around the world into prostitution. For Brownback and many others, the sex trade is a slave trade. “This mass trafficking of women and children is the largest manifestation of modern-day slavery worldwide,” he has said. One of the most important mechanisms for fighting it has been the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, authored by Brownback and Paul Wellstone, the late Democrat of Minnesota. It is one of several legislative successes Brownback has achieved in behalf of human rights. For these efforts, and especially for the way he talks about them, The Economist recently labeled Brownback “the Wilberforce Republican.”

He is perhaps more accurately described as a bleeding-heart conservative. For one thing, he really is a conservative — he supports a flat tax, criticizes divorce and illegitimacy, and backs an aggressive foreign policy in Iraq. What really animates him, however, is something deeper. In February, he delivered a major address at Kansas State University, as part of a lecture series named after Alf Landon, the Kansan who ran for president against FDR in 1936. “What are the battles today that we must wage?” he asked. “I believe that the core battle of our day is the battle to defend the inherent dignity of each and every person, the inherent beauty of each and every soul to be respected and treated as a beautiful, unique, and sacred child of a loving God.”

It is not unusual for conservatives to speak this way as they go about promoting the culture of life, and Brownback is one of the Senate’s pro-life leaders. He is the author of the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act, the Human Cloning Prohibition Act, and the Human Chimera Prohibition Act (which would make it a crime to create a being with both human and non-human tissues) — none of which has become law. The only time Brownback failed to earn a 100 percent rating from the National Right to Life Committee was when he supported the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill (which the NRLC regarded as hostile not because it favored abortion but because it placed new restrictions on political-advocacy groups).


What distinguishes Brownback from other pro-lifers is his ambitiously expansive vision for the culture of life. “He’s the one conservative who can bridge the gap between the blue states and the red states,” says Michael Horowitz, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a Brownback ally on human rights. “When liberals hear him talk, they understand that the spirit that moves him to be pro-life is also the spirit that moves him to have sympathy for North Korean refugees.” The speech at Kansas State, for instance, linked familiar life issues with the less familiar ones of alleviating poverty and reforming criminals in the United States as well as preventing disease and fighting genocide in Africa. Liberals sometimes complain that pro-life conservatives stop caring about children once they’ve left the womb; such claims usually turn into pitches for enlarging the welfare state. Brownback responds to their accusations without surrendering to their demands, quoting both Ronald Reagan and Bono in the process. As a result, he has managed to impress at least a few people who normally hold a dim view of conservatives. New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof has called Brownback “the most intriguing man in Washington — so wrong on so much, and yet such a leader on humanitarian issues.” At a time of partisan rancor, the senator has managed to stick to his principles and still find some love on the left.

Will his bleeding-heart conservatism find it on the right, especially as he heads toward 2008? On the whole, Republican primary voters will like what they see in Brownback, whose lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is 95 percent. Evangelicals in particular will welcome his idealistic politics: Conservative Christian groups are a rising presence in foreign affairs, as they combat religious persecution, defend Israel, and engage in conventional relief efforts. Brownback has tried to find ways he can help from Washington, such as proposing that drug companies develop treatments for diseases that ravage poor countries in return for increasing their patent protection. Brownback speaks about certain international issues with as much authority as anybody in the Senate. Yet his specialization in the soft issues of human rights may also seem out of sync with the gritty requirements of the post-9/11 world. When Republicans nominate their next presidential candidate, they’ll be less interested in a goodwill ambassador than in a national-security hawk.

Moreover, some of Brownback’s pet projects will strike conservatives as bizarre, such as his determination to pass a resolution that apologizes to Indian tribes “for the poor and painful choices our government sometimes made to disregard its solemn word,” as he put it in testimony to the Senate’s Indian Affairs Committee last year. One of Brownback’s main assets is that he lacks the jagged edges of some right-wing pols — but he may have smoothed away the sharpness so successfully that conservatives will harbor doubts about him.

Immigration may pose an especially thorny problem. In March, Brownback broke with most of his fellow Republicans on the Judiciary Committee to vote for the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill, which would put today’s illegal aliens on a path to citizenship. The senator has likened his own position to Reagan’s, though it is hard to believe that many conservatives view the 1986 immigration law (which granted amnesty to nearly 3 million illegal aliens) as a high point of Reagan’s presidency. “I see tension in our party between showing compassion and enforcing our laws,” says Brownback. “We also have to recognize that there is a lot of work where it’s hard to find Americans who will do it, such as meatpacking, which is a physically demanding and dangerous job.” He therefore believes a guest-worker program is necessary. His approval of the McCain-Kennedy bill in committee unleashed a torrent of conservative criticism: Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, a restrictionist group, dubbed him “Amnesty Sam,” and Human Events Online, the website of the weekly newspaper, declared in a headline, “Brownback Can Kiss ’08 Run Goodbye.”

Brownback hasn’t even kicked off a 2008 run, so it’s a little premature to kiss off anything. He does admit that he’s thinking about a race. “I’ve done a lot of early traveling, trying to assess the atmosphere,” he says. If he eventually throws his hat in the ring, his campaign may come to resemble the efforts of John Ashcroft and Steve Forbes in previous cycles — not an especially attractive comparison, given their lack of success, but also a potentially powerful blend of faith and free markets. It is possibly more conceivable to think of Brownback as a running mate.

An important lesson for Brownback may be found in the life of Wilberforce, who never was able to put the post of prime minister on his résumé. Today, however, Wilberforce is perhaps better remembered and more loved than any of the prime ministers of his time — nobody, after all, is making a movie about Spencer Perceval. It is possible, in other words, to be the inspirational leader of a moral movement without ever becoming the political leader of a country.

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