In Georgia, where the Republican Senate primary takes place today, the early campaign season has been spent with the candidates vying to out-conservative each other. One Senate candidate ran an ad declaring that “no one in Congress should get a subsidy to pay for their own health care,” thus resurrecting the long-discredited canard that Capitol Hill has carved out a special deal for itself with an exemption from Obamacare.
Actually, that ad was not run by one of the many Republicans on the ballot in Georgia. It was run by Michelle Nunn, the Democrat who is waiting to face the winner of the GOP primary. The ad’s embrace of a cynical Republican talking point got relatively little attention when it debuted last month, perhaps because the success of the Affordable Care Act in surpassing the Obama administration’s own enrollment goals had yet to sink in. But even now that things are looking brighter for the law, Nunn is still treating it as if it’s some sort of toxic goop. Asked the simple question of whether she would have voted for the legislation—a question that is irksomely hypothetical but also, let’s face it, inevitable—Nunn struggled to respond. Her answer to NBC’s Kasie Hunt was more nuanced than was first reported, but still amounted to a lengthy evasion:
NUNN: So, at the time that the Affordable Health Care Act was passed, I was working for Points of Light [her nonprofit organization]. So I think it's hard to look back, to go back retrospectively.
But when I look at it, I think of: What do we need to do going forward? I think, you know, I come at it from the perspective of someone who made payroll, who saw rising health care premiums, who believes that we actually need to work together, to make changes where it's not working and to improve the things that already are working. So I think we need to add a more affordable tier of insurance for individuals and families who have high premiums.
I think we need to add a tax credit for small businesses. And I also think we need to repeal the cuts to rural hospitals as a result of our state not expanding Medicaid. At the time time I don't think we need to go backwards. We need to make sure that people who have pre-existing conditions have access to health care. That people who now have children that are under age 26 because of it -- I talked to a constituent not long ago who said I'm so grateful, I sleep better every night because my three sons, age 20 to 26, can be covered by my insurance. So I think we need to move forward and go forward to insure that everyone has quality health care.
HUNT: But you're not sure if you would have voted yes or no?
NUNN: When I look back at what they were doing when this was passed, I think, I wish that we had more people who had tried to architect a bipartisan legislation. And who had worked together across the aisle.
HUNT: So, yes or no?
NUNN: I think it's impossible to look back retrospectively and say, "What would you have done if you were there?" Because I wasn't there, and we now have hindsight. What I can do is say: Here's where we are today, and here's what we should do, which is move forward.
HUNT: So do you think it should be repealed?
NUNN: I do not.
Leave aside for now the fact that using “architect” as a verb ought to be disqualifying for federal office. This answer just isn’t going to cut it for the next five-plus months of campaigning. Yes, Nunn is running as a centrist Democrat, and is best known as the daughter of a centrist Democrat, and is trying to win a state that went for Mitt Romney by eight percentage points. And yes, it’s wishful thinking that she would be able to make Obamacare a winning issue—the best care scenario would be for her to fight to a draw on it while scoring points on other fronts. But it’s hard to see how a candidate in Nunn’s position can neutralize Obamacare while being so, well, neutral about it. Voters smell fear and ambivalence a mile away, and there’s no better way to convince them that Obamacare is a loser than to shirk in the face of simple questions about it. Nunn’s answer on the subject has been more articulate at other moments, but even then, it is framed defensively, when it would not be difficult at all to turn the question onto the other side: how does her opponent propose, having repealed Obamacare, to protect people from being discriminated against for preexisting conditions? What does he propose to offer the Georgians who are now affording health insurance for the first time, thanks to the ACA’s subsidies?
Then there is the matter of the law’s Medicaid expansion, which Georgia’s governor and legislature have rejected, leaving 650,000 Georgians uncovered. Nunn is on the record as supporting the expansion, but she has not exactly made it a drumbeat, or even a talking point of the sort that Senator Mary Landrieu has in Louisiana, where she refers to the Louisianans left uncovered by the failure to expand Medicaid as the “Jindal gap.” To the extent that Nunn has pressed the point, it’s to make an issue of the 25,000 veterans who would qualify for coverage under the Medicaid expansion. But why stop there? Why champion the needs of 25,000 veterans when you can champion the needs of 650,000 residents, veterans and otherwise? Nunn has also been calling for repealing the cuts in funding for Georgia hospitals that was supposed to be replaced by the funds provided by Medicaid expansion. Those cuts are forcing some rural hospitals to close, which should be providing only more incentive for the state to accept the expansion. But instead of pushing that argument, Nunn is simply joining Georgia Republicans in calling for the repeal of the cuts, which would reduce the incentive for expansion.
The fact is, the political ground is shifting. The conservative Republican governor of Indiana, a state that Romney won by 10.5 percentage points—a larger margin than in Georgia!—is now looking for a way to accept the Medicaid expansion. And Republican candidates are increasingly floundering in their attempt to attack a law that is starting to be accepted as a fait accompli, to the extent that they’re still talking about the law at all. Greg Sargent is right that the media has gone too easy on the growing Republican incoherence on this subject. But the media would make more of that incoherence if Democrats like Michelle Nunn were more willing to call attention to it—to architect a Democratic counterattack on Obamacare, as it were.