In crimson-red Alabama, Parker Griffith, the Democratic candidate for governor, is running ads embracing a critical component of Obamacare. Griffith castigates his opponent, Republican incumbent Robert Bentley, for refusing to expand Medicaid, which the challenger says could benefit more than 300,000 Alabamians.
Of course, Griffith, a retired physician and former member of Congress, never refers to the Affordable Care Act by name. As a moderate Southern Democrat (who briefly switched to the GOP after Obama’s election), he voted against the bill in Congress.
And Griffith’s ads certainly don’t mention President Obama, who some Southern Republicans believe is in league with the Antichrist. But in a state where rural hospitals are shutting down for lack of funds, Griffith believes that Bentley’s hostility toward Medicaid expansion creates an opening.
“It’s unconscionable to have somebody in an office as powerful as governor who will hurt a whole bunch of people because of some political ideology: ‘I hate Obama.’ … We in Alabama would have benefited more than most others” from broadening Medicaid, which provides health insurance for the poor and near-poor, Griffith told me.
While the U.S. Supreme Court voted in 2012 to uphold most of the ACA, including its mandate, the court struck down the portion requiring states to expand Medicaid to insure more people. Like Bentley, most GOP governors took the opportunity to dogmatically refuse the expansion, though the federal government would pay the full costs for the first three years and 90 percent after that.
Now, though, as midterm elections approach, Griffith’s full-court press is just one sign that the politics surrounding the president’s signature legislation have changed since the disastrous rollout seemed to guarantee the GOP a winning campaign issue. Here’s another sign: Many Republicans who just a few months ago continually bashed the policy — vowing to rip out Obamacare root and branch — rarely mention it on the campaign trail these days.
Take a look at Georgia, another bright-red state. Last year, Republican Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens garnered national publicity when he loudly declared that he would be an Obamacare “obstructionist.”
Recently, however, Hudgens backed — no, ran — away from that statement, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I spoke to a Republican group … and I said I was going to be an obstructionist, but I can’t be. I mean, I was talking to a Republican group and I was throwing them some red meat. …
“I’m not a fan of it. I don’t think it’s going to work. But there’s nothing I can do about it,” Hudgens said.
Nearly a dozen of the 29 Republican governors have abandoned their party’s dogma to expand Medicaid. Several more are expected to do so next year after the midterm elections, when pressures to conform to partisan ideology will have faded.
GOP pragmatists have had to acknowledge that the law is working even better than some of its proponents had hoped. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that the ACA will cost the federal government $104 billion less than previously expected over the next decade.
About 7 million people have signed up and paid their premiums. Furthermore, the cost of premiums has not soared, as critics had predicted. (Some rates have increased slightly, while others have gone down.) Moreover, most Americans like the advantages, including a ban on lifetime caps on insurance benefits and an end to the days when insurers could deny coverage because of a pre-existing condition.
The “facts make it harder and harder for opponents to vilify something that is helping people improve not only their health, but their quality of living,” a senior administration official told me in an email.
That doesn’t mean that all Republicans are willing to concede that Obamacare has worked as it was meant to. A few, particularly those in the most conservative states, still vow to “repeal and replace” it. And in states such as Kentucky, Obamacare remains unpopular — even among many of its beneficiaries. That says something about the irrational nature of political decision making.
Still, the ACA has not been anything close to the political disaster for Democrats that Republicans had hoped for. Sometimes, good deeds do go unpunished.
Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.