Milton Wolf reminds voters, without fail, that he’s new to politics.
Yet he performs as if born to the trade.
Ready with a smile. Just-right firmness on the handshake teamed always with just-folks patter. Good looks eclipsed only by those of the wife and kids.
And above all, the Senate hopeful remains ever eager to share his conviction that the nation’s founders got it right and those guys in Washington today consistently get things wrong. He thinks they’ve been getting it wrong for about a century.
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As for long-serving fellow Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, well, “it’s nothing personal, but I think 47 years in Washington is too long. Don’t you?”
Washington politicians, he implores, keep stealing liberty that the U.S. Constitution made an American birthright. To drive home his point, if the Leawood radiologist hasn’t already, he reliably underscores the heart of his campaign.
“I’m a doctor, not a politician,” he says. “I’m a constitutional conservative.”
Wherever the conversation travels next, he’ll steer it back to those cornerstones.
He’s a tea party candidate with the polish of the practiced mainstream. Often on the attack – on Roberts, on President Barack Obama, on how the former is too easy on the latter – Wolf pounds on time-tested talking points: government as more problem than solution; the superiority of Kansas common sense over Washington regulations; the negative powers of taxes.
He regularly hits the notes that play well with the most conservative voters. Ronald Reagan comes up frequently. So do U.S. Sens. Rand Paul, Mike Lee and Ted Cruz – the “it” boys of libertarian/tea party Republicanism in Washington.
Yet Wolf lacks the same eagerness to talk policy specifics. Perhaps anticipating what resonates with voters, he energetically tears into elites and big-government types that many aligned with the tea party blame for the nation’s ills.
“Our problems are less about Republicans versus Democrats,” he said, “and more about the ruling class versus sovereign citizens.”
No elite draws as much scorn from Wolf as the president. As luck would have it, the two are distant cousins linked by Obama’s Kansan mother. Wolf raises the issue with mock embarrassment. But it’s really a set-up for the old saw about how you can’t pick your relatives.
It’s also an opening to remind his audience that he thinks Obama is socialist and “maybe the worst president in history.”
He’s only warming up. The 43-year-old Wolf runs against Obama as much as he rails against Roberts, who was a legislative aide before being elected to Congress.
Wolf has been heckling the president in columns for The Washington Times since 2010, mostly over the great dangers he sees in the Affordable Care Act. He says the White House tried to get him dumped from the gig.
Wolf also insists that, as a physician, he has particular insights into the pitfalls of Obamacare. He objects most strongly that the act dictates to Americans how they must insure themselves.
He would scrap Obamacare and make insurance more “personal, portable and affordable.” He endorses tax-free health savings accounts. But he doesn’t make clear, even in a white paper on the topic, how he would sever the link between employment and insurance coverage.
In an interview, he said allowing people to buy insurance with pretax earnings or granting tax credits for premium payments would be “at least a start” to making insurance more portable.
A tax audit of his business and a delay on his personal income tax refund, he suggests time and again, coincided with his attacks on the administration. In the end, Wolf said, his records were clean. Likewise, he concedes that he cannot prove his politics triggered any targeting of his finances.
“I could only presume so,” he said, “but I don’t know.”
A White House spokesman declined to comment.
‘Maker of decisions’
If Obama talk revs up Wolf, chatting about his medical background stokes his confidence.
“Dr. Milton Wolf wakes up every day and saves lives,” begins one of his campaign TV commercials. (The candidate, gleaming smile and shock of dark hair, is shown in a white doctor’s coat looking after patients.)
He also argues that the disciplined thinking required in medicine would serve him as a senator. M.D., he likes to say, might as well stand for “maker of decisions.” Wolf said that decisiveness would make him an effective legislator.
His medical background also raises an issue that marked his awkward introduction to many Kansans.
In February, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported that Wolf had posted unsettling images of wounded and dead patients to Facebook in 2010 with seemingly callous commentary: “What kind of gun blows somebody’s head completely off? I’ve got to get one of those.”
Shortly after that story broke, The Star reported that a radiology firm in which Wolf is a partner faces charges of illegal price fixing in a civil suit. Wolf and his partners vehemently deny the allegation.
Wolf has said he regrets the Facebook posts and long ago removed them. He also complains that the Roberts campaign incorrectly claims that patients’ privacy was violated. There was nothing, Wolf’s campaign notes, in the posts that would violate federal privacy laws by revealing the identity of the people in the images.
He sometimes talks about the sacrifice of his medical training. When a recent chat with a prospective voter turned to education, Wolf pointed out that he’d just put one child through college and had another to go – while still paying off his own loans for medical school.
He would say later he was making a point about federal requirements needlessly inflating the cost of college – not that the Wolfs struggle to make ends meet.
Financial disclosure records required of U.S. Senate candidates do show he has an outstanding student loan of more than $100,000.
But that same filing suggests he earns more than $500,000 a year, primarily from the radiology practice. He also lives in a home valued at about $700,000. Last fall, he lent his campaign $30,000.
Feds and farmers
Although his father was also a physician, Wolf just as often likes to cite the work ethic he says he learned from his grandfather’s dairy farm.
That spurs him toward the plight of farmers he sees as overburdened by federal laws. Yet ask him about farm policy and it takes some coaxing to get much detail.
First, he answers that he’d like to ease the burden on taxpayers without hurting family farmers.
But would he cut, for instance, the subsidies baked into crop insurance – a $9 billion program much valued by Kansas commodity farmers? Wolf says again he’d like to help both taxpayer and farmer.
Pressed a third time about how to save the tax money and protect the subsidies, Wolf says, “I’ll leave it to you to come up with examples.”
In a follow-up interview, Wolf said he would revise the “shallow loss” provision in crop insurance that now pays farmers when revenue losses happen before their paid crop insurance kicks in.
More broadly, he said agriculture subsidies should be reformed so the wealthiest farmers aren’t also often the greatest beneficiaries.
But mostly he talks about the farmer as under siege from government regulations, primarily from the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“How ’bout we start by de-militarizing them?” – referring to fear circulating on conservative and anti-government websites about a recent USDA solicitation of bids for submachine guns. “Disarm them,” Wolf said.
A spokesman for the Agriculture Department’s Office of Inspector General said the procurement is for new semiautomatic guns to replace automatic (more machine gun-like) firearms:
“OIG Special agents regularly conduct undercover operations and surveillance (of) … fraud in farm programs; significant thefts of Government property or funds; bribery and extortion; smuggling; and assaults and threats of violence against USDA employees engaged in their official duties.”
Wolf later conceded he didn’t know what the weapons were for, but thought that departments such as the USDA should leave such work to traditional law enforcement agencies, particularly local outfits.
Local and state government should carry the bulk of environmental regulation as well, he said.
No need for the federal government to ban incandescent light bulbs – “well-intentioned people joining forces with crony capitalism” – because he believes it’s arrogant to think that man’s activities contribute to climate change.
It fits into a pattern where it’s hard to find a place where his outlook differs from his party’s right wing. “Seal our borders once and for all” – including immediate deportation of the children streaming in from Central America. Ban abortion. Abolish the IRS.
Wolf insists he wants no future in politics. He promises to serve no more than two terms in the Senate and return to his medical practice. (He says he’d volunteer his radiology services part-time while in office.)
“Our country is in deep trouble,” he said. “I’ll do whatever I can.”