SALINA, Kan. - "It's actually pretty good," my uncle insisted. When he asked if I had already read my Christmas gift from him, a copy of George W. Bush's Decision Points, I joked that I had been waiting for it to come out in paperback.
My uncle and I frequently give each other books on or by political figures we hold in low esteem. They're sort of gag gifts, but I still usually read them. By listening to opposing points of view one can frequently learn something, and occasionally discover heretofore unknown areas of agreement. I had such an experience reading the 43rd President's book.
Bush's political memoir didn't redefine for me the major points of what I believe his legacy will be for historians. The Bush Presidency will be forever tainted by two disastrous policy decisions - huge tax cuts which ushered in crushing deficits, and the invasion of Iraq, an undertaking billed to a credit card which was not worth the cost. But in a chapter entitled "Leading," he talks of the need to reduce the ideological extremes in Congress and proposes that redistricting be carried out by committees of non-partisan elders.
Bush argues that since so many districts are gerrymandered to favor one party or the other few districts are competitive nationally in most years. The only true competition in "safe" districts is intraparty in nature. Therefore many members run to the far end of the political spectrum to fend off primary challenges.
President Obama's recent characterization of Congress as "dysfunctional," hit a chord with most of his countrymen, and the institution has an approval rating that hovers around eight percent nationally. So what about former President Bush's idea?
An effort to put such a system in place in Kansas failed during the 2009 session of the Kansas Legislature. Groups in power tend to prefer to use the redistricting process to increase that power. The tradition goes back to Massachusetts Governor Eldridge Gerry's use of the strategy in his state back in 1812.
Such an exercise will be on full display this year in the Kansas Legislature. And one of the main protagonists from ten years ago is back to lead the effort, House Speaker Mike O'Neil. O'Neil, who recently thought a photo of Michelle Obama on a windy day with a racial insult below was so funny that he forwarded it to the entire Republican caucus, led the effort last time that, among other things, split the city of Lawrence in an effort to push Kansas City Democrat Dennis Moore out of his seat.
By law redistricting is a state function. But since the four Kansas congressmen are all Republican, they are rumored to be working on a map among themselves to present for the Legislature's approval. This sets up conflict between Congressman Tim Huelskamp, whose first district needs to gain residents, and Lynn Jenkins (second) and Kevin Yoder (third) who want the tradeoffs to make their congressional seats safer.
Redistricting at the state level will also amplify conflicts during a session in which Governor Sam Brownback has laid out an ambitious agenda. Brownback, schooled in the hyper-partisan environment of Washington, D.C., has brought its influence back to Kansas. Moderate Republican senators who have drawn the governor's ire already have primary opponents. And redistricting will purposely be left for later in the session so that the Administration and its allies can use its threats as coercion to bring legislators into line behind their agenda.
I think most Kansans, like most Americans, feel we need less partisanship in our political system, not more. If Governor Brownback really wants to make a positive contribution to our state he could propose and push former President Bush's idea of a non-partisan redistricting commission. The move would create publicity for our state, this time for the right reasons.