In an interview with a reporter last month, Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS) “accidentally” made complimentary remarks about the Affordable Care Act, routinely known as Obamacare. (His campaign aides claim he misunderstood the question.) Some analysts say those remarks were among the missteps that have left the senator in danger of defeat as he faces a primary runoff against a Tea Party upstart, Chris McDaniel.
It’s possible that Cochran was confused when he told The Washington Post that the ACA “is an example of an important effort by the federal government to help make health care available, accessible and affordable.” It’s also possible that he committed the standard political gaffe as commentator Michael Kinsley defined it years ago: “… when a politician tells the truth — some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.”
Either way, Cochran’s comments are a reminder of a pronounced shift among Republican politicians discussing Obamacare on the campaign trail. Few of them are delivering feisty denunciations and declarations of repeal, as they did just a few months ago. Even in deeply conservative states, Republicans are muting their rhetoric, acknowledging positive tenets of the ACA and engaging in equivocation — or, in some cases, fabrication — to cover their tracks.
That’s because the political terrain has shifted beneath their feet. In practice, as its proponents have long predicted, the ACA has helped millions of people to obtain health care they would not have been able to afford otherwise. Surely it’s no surprise that few voters want to give up benefits they have just begun to enjoy.
That has meant some less-than-artful dodging by such indefatigable partisan warriors as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. In keeping with the GOP script, McConnell has been adamant about repealing the ACA.
But in his home state of Kentucky, Kynect, the state-run exchange that connects residents to Obamacare, is wildly popular, having signed up more than 400,000 people for health insurance. So McConnell takes advantage of voters’ confusion — many don’t understand that Kynect is Obamacare — to suggest he supports the exchange but not that foul law that made it possible. Indeed, he has gone so far as to declare that they are unconnected — a laughable lie, even in the warped reality of a political campaign.
Several other prominent Republicans have found themselves in a similar bind, as many facets of the law prove politically popular. Voters still don’t like “Obamacare,” but they like many of its provisions, including those that outlaw bans on patients who have pre-existing conditions.
Voters also support the provision that prevents lifetime caps on insurance payments — something that benefits those with serious, chronic illnesses — and the one that allows parents to keep their children insured until they are 26 years old. Indeed, the only provision that remains broadly unpopular is the mandate that requires every adult to buy health insurance (a necessary feature of the law, and one that many Republicans, including Mitt Romney, once believed in).
Perhaps the most dramatic shift among GOP pols has concerned Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. The Supreme Court’s ruling affirming the ACA made the Medicaid expansion optional for states, and most Republican governors resisted it. That was foolish and shortsighted, since the federal government pays the overwhelming portion of the additional cost. Those governors — and their GOP colleagues in Congress — were willing to trade better health for some of their poorest residents for the chance to poke Obama in the eye.
But now some of them are seeing the error of that calculation. For one thing, it’s hard to own up to a willingness to shaft the working poor. For another, some rural hospitals can’t afford to stay open unless they receive additional Medicaid funds. Those hard facts have forced GOP Senate candidates such as Michigan’s Terri Lynn Land to back away from their diehard opposition to Obamacare.
And, as more Americans benefit, the resistance will grow weaker still. That was the historical cycle with Medicare — which the GOP establishment fought long and hard — and Obamacare will likely follow that path to broad acceptance.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at email@example.com.)
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr