December 13, 2013
Don't ask this man for any
Don’t ask this man for any “free stuff.” (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Republicans are rolling out an attack on Obamacare that sounds a lot like the Romney 2012 “free stuff”  argument. As Beth Reinhard explains in a good piece, the idea is to characterize beneficiaries of the law – particularly the Medicaid expansion — as “shiftless freeloaders” enjoying “free health care,” all “on the backs of hardworking Americans.”

Mitch McConnell recently derided the notion that Obamacare is a success by characterizing beneficiaries as “people signing up for something that is free.” Reinhard notes that this line “carries an unmistakable undertone of class warfare, a theme easy to exploit in states such as Kentucky, packed with low-income white voters who have a strong distaste for the federal government.”

The handling of Obamacare by McConnell’s Dem opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, is worth considering in this context. It reflects the fact that red state Dems are approaching the health law in a more nuanced way than conventional wisdom suggests. Grimes is criticizing parts of the law, and is not embracing it — far from it. But she isn’t running from its general goals, either. Something more subtle is going on: A faulting of the Republican stance through a defense of the need to expand coverage to people who lack it — the very same beneficiaries of “free stuff” McConnell is singling out.

Here are a couple recent Grimes statements about Obamacare. Last month, Grimes said:

“‘Instead of finger-pointing, instead of blaming, instead of attacking the presidential branch, let’s actually — or the executive branch — let’s actually attack the problem that exists here in the commonwealth and find a way for 640,000″ to get health insurance, Grimes said.

In September, Grimes said Obamacare would create jobs in Kentucky, adding:

“There are 640,000 Kentuckians who previously did not have access to insurance…we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

The 640,000 Grimes refers to are the total number of Kentucky residents who are eligible for the Medicaid expansion or are uninsured and must buy insurance, many of them eligible for subsidies. In other words, Grimes is faulting McConnell’s call for repeal by implicitly suggesting it would foreclose a route to affordable coverage for over half a million people in the state.

The class warfare attacks on Obamacare will continue. Indeed, as Brian Beutler has spelled out, stoking class warfare and resentment are central to other attacks on the law, too, such as the one pitting the young and healthy versus the old and sick. In Reinhard’s piece, you can see variations of this one in Kentucky, too.

Here’s what I expect to see. Grimes will avoid talking about Obamacare where possible, and instead will focus on the minimum wage, pocketbook issues affecting women (equal pay), and McConnell’s decades in Washington. Where necessary, she will call for “fixes” to Obamacare problems that arise (she backed the mandate delay, which would undermine the law if it could pass). But she will defend the expansion of coverage to those who lack it.

Kentucky may prove to be an interesting testing ground for a Democratic balancing act like this. That’s because enrollment has been a success, and many beneficiaries are poor and rural, the very targets for the “class warfare” attacks. Dem governor Steve Beshear is one of the most aggressive advocates for the law in the south, arguing that Dems should run on “affordable health care” and on the idea that Republicans want to take it away from people.

Grimes — who also has the crucial advantage of having never voted for Obamacare — will obviously be a good deal more subtle than Beshear and won’t associate herself directly with the law. But in defending the idea of expanding coverage to those who lack it, you can see the potential for a more direct argument later about the consequences of repeal. Thus far, nearly 72,000 Kentuckians have enrolled, over 56,000 through the Medicaid expansion, and tens of thousands are eligible for subsidies. Over the months you can picture enrollment piling up to a critical mass that would make it easier for Grimes to argue that repeal would kick all of these people off of insurance, and harder for McConnell to stick to his “free stuff” frame.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.