In all the puzzlement over the irrationality of Republican governors vowing to turn down the bonanza of federal dollars provided for expanding Medicaid, there’s a reason hiding in plain sight: pure ambition.
It’s no accident that several of the fire-breathers on this subject—notably Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley—have exhibited interest in (or have been reported to covet) higher office.
I don’t know if Rick Perry still wants to be president, or can overcome the impression of buffoonery and incompetence that helped sink his once-formidable 2012 campaign. But I do know that his one big policy mistake involved letting rivals get to the right of him on an emotionally important issue, immigration, and he would not likely make that miscalculation again. Perennial smartest-guy-in-the-room Jindal would almost have to consider running for president at some point as a member of a party that is crazy for minority wingnuts (as Herman Cain’s improbable campaign showed). And the same factor may be motivating Haley, who has the additional challenge of staying in the very good graces of Jim DeMint, who publicly urged governors to do everything within their power to obstruct implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
This doesn’t explain all the Medicaid rejectionists, of course. I doubt Terry Branstad is foolish enough to see a future President of the United States in his bathroom mirror each morning, though he does govern a state with a generous enough Medicaid program that rejecting the expansion is not as big a deal as it is in a place like Texas. As for Rick Scott—who knows? He probably has as good a chance of landing on a 2016 national ticket as he does of getting re-elected governor of Florida. But then he’s a guy whose whole political career began with public opposition to ObamaCare, so he may just be dancing with the one that brung him.
In any event, observers mulling this situation do not seem to have sufficiently absorbed the central reality of Republican politics at this particular moment, which is that it’s well-nigh impossible to move too far to the right. You say you’re a conservative, bubba? Then I’m a true conservative! And if you’re a true conservative, I’m a constitutional conservative! Anyone even distantly dreaming of a Republican presidential or vice presidential nomination understands this dynamic implicitly.