Opinion Columns & Blogs

Generation X leaders are not inspiring much hope


In the political arena, my generation just keeps dropping the ball.

Normally, people in their 40s would be expected to be hitting their stride – making major career moves, showing a little maturity, watching the kids get older, and starting to think about what mark they want to leave on this world.

For those of us born in the 1960s and ’70s, though, something has gone terribly awry.

In the presidential race, Democrats have passed us up entirely, as 68-year-old Hillary Clinton faces off against 74-year-old Bernie Sanders for the nomination. If elected, Clinton would tie Ronald Reagan as the oldest president. Sanders would easily break Reagan’s record.

Republican Donald Trump (age 69) recently finished off Generation Xer and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (born in 1970), who in turn seems to be universally disliked by nearly everyone who ever tried to work with him. Hope still remains for House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. (1970).

Here in Kansas, we Xers are not doing much better. Few of our legislative leaders are in their 40s. One exception is Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence (1975), who recently announced he is not seeking re-election, complaining that our political system makes it too hard to enact sweeping changes.

Forty-somethings in state politics also include Attorney General Derek Schmidt (1968), once a rising star among moderate Republicans. Typically, the attorney general is considered the second most powerful position behind the governor, but Schmidt ceded this role to Secretary of State Kris Kobach. In turn, Kobach successfully promoted legislation allowing his office to prosecute voter fraud, a task for which that office is not well-suited.

Schmidt did nothing to fight this power shift. The guardian of the state’s legal system, Schmidt also says nothing when Gov. Sam Brownback tries to unseat judges who do not rule his way, nor did he defend Kansas’ merit system of selecting judges when it came under political attack. Schmidt may seek the governorship, but he first must figure out what he believes.

Another likely aspirant is Kobach himself (1966), who once suggested President Obama might want to halt prosecutions of African-Americans and who continues to insist on the need for laws that have purged more than 30,000 people from the state’s voter rolls in order to stop voter fraud that does not exist. Enough said.

Can either Schmidt or Kobach be stopped by Democrat Paul Davis (1972)? When running against Brownback in 2014, Davis avoided demagoguery, but he did show a certain timidity. If he tries again, Davis is going to have to move beyond defining issues in terms of certain interest groups and blocs of voters, and sketch out a vision of Kansas starkly different from the mess that will be left to the next governor. He is going to have to inspire Kansans to rebuild a broken state. It is going to take leadership. Is Generation X up to the task?

We Gen Xers are entering the second half of life, and it is time to start thinking about what we will someday leave behind. Right now, it is not looking so good. There is still time for late bloomers, but Kansas cannot wait forever.

Michael A. Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.