For 11 years, Republican candidates for the Virginia House of Delegates have done the following: get elected on a campaign promise to oppose certain key legislation, then go back on that promise a few months after taking office. Are they setting up another U-turn?
This malady first appeared under Democratic Gov. Mark Warner. Republican candidates promised not to raise taxes if elected during their 2003 campaigns. But the Republican House of Delegates caved in and passed Warner’s tax increases at a 2004 special session. They made the same kind of promises during Gov. Tim Kaine’s term and Gov. Bob McDonnell’s. Remember the “no tax” pledge of 2012? Shortly thereafter, the Republican House of Delegates approved the biggest transportation tax increase in the state’s history.
While campaigning last year, GOP candidates promised to never approve a Medicaid expansion. They came to the 2014 General Assembly scoffing at new Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s demand to expand the program. Republican House Speaker Bill Howell’s office has since been doing everything but asking singer Lorrie Morgan for the master recording to her country hit, “What Part of No (Don’t You Understand?)”
“Just say no” works in a campaign. It works when the first gavel falls during the General Assembly session. The “Hell, no” chorus was still singing on Valentine’s Day. But soon comes the spring thaw. Sometimes the House of Delegates resists sufficiently to force a special session. At other times it gives in during regulation time. But the last year’s “no” almost always become next year’s “yes.”
It begs the question: Is it nature or nurture?
Or is it merely the longest running campaign fake-out in Virginia history? Republicans run for office promising one thing, then blame the Democrats for creating a situation that forces them either to switch or create an impasse threatening to shut down government.
We hear the same “sky is falling” threats and counterthreats right now.
Our conclusion (to quote from the BBC hit show “Sherlock”) : “What do we say about coincidences? The universe is rarely so lazy.” The Medicaid expansion debate is new proof of a long-running GOP excuse that’s growing rather old. Republicans aren’t making the political arguments needed to win a fight against a savvy governor. They seem only to be preparing a line of retreat. That’s their privilege. But if they want to be taken seriously, they will have to start making the following arguments:
1. Medicaid expansion threatens the state’s AAA credit rating.
This proved to be a winning argument for Warner in 2004. It is a classically effective line because no one can disprove a negative. Only bond lawyers truly understand the AAA. But it has magically become the Holy Grail. Oops: The GOP seems to have never heard of the AAA.
2. The Republican plan is better.
When Ronald Reagan opposed Medicare, the shrewd politician knew he needed to simultaneously offer an alternative. He claimed this other plan would work better. No one could prove otherwise. This allowed Reagan to avoid being painted as insensitive to poor senior citizens. Oops! The Virginia GOP doesn’t have a credible alternative.
3. Try a first-in-the-nation K-12 health initiative.
Right now, most kids on Medicaid have doctors but aren’t getting care. As long as the GOP is not perceived as being proactive on helping poor families, it enters these debates handcuffed. As Bill Clinton might say: Fix it, don’t nix it.
4. No additional state money for expansion.
Most voters don’t know that Uncle Sam is promising federal dollars to cover all of the Medicaid expansion costs for a few years. Win the state money argument first. That’s the smart politics.
5. Obamacare, Obamacare, Obamacare, excuse me, did we mention Obamacare?
Too many Democrats are trying to run away from Obamacare. “Defend the good, deny the bad” is the right strategy. Conversely, most voters don’t know what “Medicaid expansion” means. Republicans need to lash it to Obamacare.
House Republicans will tell anyone within earshot they aren’t going to budge on Medicaid. But 11 years of practice has made House Republicans better than Olympic diving legend Greg Louganis at pulling off the reverse one-and-a-half somersault with three-and-a-half twists. Nailed it! Perfect 10.
Norman Leahy is an editor of the conservative Web site BearingDrift.com and producer of the political radio show “The Score.” Paul Goldman is a former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. They are blogging together on All Opinions Are Local during Virginia’s 2014 General Assembly session.