The aftershocks of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act continued to be felt across the American landscape this week, with state officials calculating the relative advantages and disadvantages of opting out of the law’s Medicaid expansion and pondering whether to implement the statute now or wait until after the November elections.
The reverberation was overtly electoral as well. Both sides were busy calibrating the issue with their various candidates and deciding whether to fashion health care into a front-and-center showpiece issue or to relegate it to the back rooms of the campaign cottage.
At the very top, while the role of the law is unclear on the Republican side, the Obama campaign appears to have decided on a strategy. Simply put, the president isn’t going to run from a law that represents his signature achievement but neither is he going to make it the top issue. America, Obama argues, wants to move on, and GOP efforts to repeal the law are backward looking, not forward looking.
Obama will surely espouse the law’s perceived benefits – its purported expansion of health insurance to 30 million now uninsured Americans – but the president’s team seems more eager to stress economic and tax themes, namely, that the election is about tax fairness for the middle class and the need for more government stimulus to bolster job creation and to support the nation’s middle-income earners.
Such a strategy allows the president to ask for more time to direct an economy he says is moving in the right direction, as well as to showcase Republican support for extending Bush-era tax cuts for households making more than $250,000. That presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney can be depicted as part of the disconnected wealthy doesn’t hurt.
Democrats appear unified on the strategy from top to bottom and are even predicting Republicans will lose decisively at every level if they insist on using the repeal of the health-care law as a battle cry.
Here’s how New York’s Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer put it in a CBS interview last week: “If Republicans make as their number one issue the repeal of health care, they’re certainly going to lose the election in the House and the Senate – and the presidency.”
What the Republicans say
Republicans are not so unified about the political potency of the law.
For his part, Romney continues to advocate repeal – his strong pivot on that point was booed in his speech last week to the NAACP – but his campaign appears undecided about how much it will wield it as a weapon in the fall. Romney himself calls the individual mandate a tax but has not emphasized the statute as a tax argument per se.
Not so at the senatorial and congressional levels. Below the marquee presidential campaign, GOP candidates are set to portray the law as a massive tax hike on the middle class that will further weaken an already weak economy, and they are highlighting that theme even as the Romney team remains reticent.
The plan is to make the health law a rallying cry against big government and new taxes as a way to energize the base, while deriding Obama’s stimulus measures and high deficits as failed policies, more of which the nation cannot afford.
All of which is why Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives moved immediately to vote to repeal the law again after the Supreme Court decision: It was a politically symbolic vote to set the stage for the fall campaigns. For example, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has pummeled Democrats who voted against repeal as supporting the largest tax hike in history on the middle class.
As Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin put it, Americans now had “one more chance” to repeal the law – they could elect a Republican president and a Republican Senate to go along with an already Republican House.
“Despite the Supreme Court upholding much of the health care law, it is not its role to determine the policy merits of the law,” Ryan said. “That falls to the elected representatives of the people. For that reason, the House acted to repeal this misguided law to begin replacing it with patient-centered solutions.”
Ryan laid out the message Republican congressional GOP candidates will push:
“(The law’s) taxes, penalties, fees and regulations will stifle job creation, and its budget gimmicks can’t hide the trillions of dollars of new government spending that will only cause our dire fiscal situation to further erode.”
Wisconsin Senate race
The strategic importance of the health-care issue is already at work in the Wisconsin Senate race, both in the Aug. 14 Republican primary and in the general election that will follow.
In the GOP race, it’s former Gov. Tommy Thompson first into the hot seat. Some conservatives have been dissatisfied with what they call Thompson’s past support for the health-care law and especially for the individual mandate that goes with it. The Thompson campaign insists Thompson opposes the law.
So far, Thompson’s opponents – businessman Eric Hovde, former congressman Mark Neumann, and Assembly speaker Jeff Fitzgerald – haven’t made much of an issue of Thompson’s past statements in support of the individual mandate and in support of a Democratic version of the law that ultimately passed in 2009. However, expect that to change as the primary approaches and with polls showing the race tightening
For its part, the conservative national Club for Growth has taken Thompson to the woodshed in numerous public statements and in small ad buys. Now, according to Alexander Burns of Politico, the Club is launching a bigger ad buy that could signal a much larger-scale attack on Thompson in the coming weeks.
If so, it would not be out of character. The Club played a pivotal role in the recent primary defeat of Indiana GOP Sen. Dick Lugar.
Indeed, last week the Club for Growth released a new web video called “Tommy ‘Nanny State’ Thompson,” which includes clips from a lecture Thompson gave at the University of Texas in February 2007. During the lecture, the Club asserts, Thompson supported higher taxes on tobacco, subsidizing healthy foods, and the individual mandate requiring people to buy health insurance.
“All you need to do is listen to Tommy Thompson talk to know that he’s wrong for Wisconsin,” Club for Growth president Chris Chocola said. “Like President Obama, Tommy Thompson supported an individual mandate to buy health insurance and his knee-jerk reaction to every problem is to involve government. That’s not surprising, considering Tommy Thompson is a career politician who not only supported ObamaCare but also has a record of raising taxes on Wisconsin families. Tommy Thompson’s own words are coming back to bite him. While his campaign desperately panders to fiscal conservatives, Tommy Thompson can’t hide from his own mouth.”
Meanwhile, Thompson himself continued to reiterate his opposition to the law and also elevated it to high status by blasting the presumptive Democratic nominee in the race, U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Madison, for her vote in the House against repeal.
“There’s only one answer for ObamaCare: Repeal,” Thompson said. “With a victory in November, I will deliver what is impossible right now – the 51st vote in the U.S. Senate to repeal ObamaCare.”
Thompson also employed the GOP strategy of painting the law as a tax increase on the middle class, saying it would impose 22 new taxes and an average premium increase of $1,200 on families.
“Baldwin’s support of ObamaCare comes with a price tag we can’t afford,” Thompson said. “A high-cost health care system that increases our country’s debt and discourages hiring because of the burden it places on small business.”
GOP candidate Fitzgerald also got into the fray, staying mum on Thompson but training his fire on Baldwin. Fitzgerald is running last in the polls.
“Today’s vote by Tammy Baldwin is not surprising,” Fitzgerald said. “She has been an advocate for President Obama’s entire agenda and has publically proclaimed that ObamaCare in her mind actually does not go far enough. She has proven time and time again that she is one of the most liberal members of the U.S. Congress. This vote not only reaffirms her support for ObamaCare, but it also reaffirms her commitment to the out-of-touch liberal agenda that is holding back our entire nation.”
Richard Moore may be reached at email@example.com