Can a politician change his mind?
Think of President George H.W. Bush, who was riding high after ejecting the Iraqis from Kuwait in 1992. “I think he had the highest (approval) rating ever by a President,” recalled his Secretary of Defense, a Wyoming fellow who deserves some credit for Bush’s popularity. But the coda? “(Desert Storm) wrapped up in the spring of ’92, and two years later he was out of work.”
Bush’s steady hand and decisive military moves in an international crisis were quickly forgotten in his 1992 re-election campaign when conservative critics and Democrats took hold of six words he spoke at the 1988 Republican Convention: “Read my lips: No new taxes.” So direct! So unequivocal! But in 1990, attempting to cut the federal budget deficit, he compromised with a Democratic Congress to allow some existing taxes to rise. Not a “new” tax, technically, but it was all the ammunition needed.
Which brings us to Grover Norquist, whose group Americans for Tax Reform threatened the political guillotine for any politician who raised taxes by even a penny. Norquist’s sharp blade was a one-sentence pledge: no-new-taxes. It was political death by negative pregnant: If you didn’t sign it, one could assume you were secretly planning, say, a one-cent tax increase on pomegranates, and Norquist would let the voters know in a big way. He began signing up jittery politicians in 1985, and continues to this day.
Politicians change stripes all the time, but Norquist’s ingenious ploy was to keep the evidence of stripe-changing simple as can be, so he could interrupt a politician’s windy explanations faster than a Swift Boat. If you step out of line, and don’t have a plausible Twitter-length explanation, you’re going to get “Norquisted.”
This “gotcha” approach to politics has infected the media and both ends of the political spectrum, filtering from the national stage down to local races as well. Take, for instance, the federal Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. Many Wyoming legislators campaigned against Wyoming participation in the Affordable Care Act, taking their lead from Gov. Matt Mead (R), who called it “unconstitutional” and declared it would “kill jobs, distress small businesses, and hurt future growth.” Obamacare offered a chance to expand Medicaid care to 17,600 Wyoming uninsured, paid for mostly by the feds. Critics questioned whether that promise would be kept.
But what if a legislator finally read his or her way through the law (955-pages, plus about 10,000 pages of regulations), and had second thoughts?
If we apply the Norquist Twist in an ideologically-neutral way, we begin by reducing the Affordable Care Act to a catch-phrase or two. Against it? “Bad health care,” “fraud,” “higher taxes,” “deadbeat dependents.” For it? “Working poor,” “bankrupt hospitals,” “our taxes to other states.” Are you for it, or against it? Yes or no?
Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander), once an opponent of expanding coverage, changed his mind after his own battle with a life-threatening disease, which “opened him up” to the travails the uninsured face seeking treatment. But he was not entirely welcome in the Medicaid expansion camp. During the election, some Democrats went after him on Facebook for changing his mind and finding that empathy belatedly, “just like a politician.”
The lobbying coalition that backed Medicaid expansion in Wyoming – including doctors, hospitals, the AARP, the Wyoming Business Alliance, and many more – was kinder to Case, thanking him and others who backed Medicaid expansion, including Gov. Matt Mead.
Mead’s an interesting case. The lawsuit loving Governor had brought Wyoming into a Florida lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act back in 2011, and even after his own Department of Health tallied up potential savings of about $50 million by making the Medicaid move, he continued to say no.
Then in 2015 Mead embraced Medicaid expansion, with some Wyoming tweaks, saying we are “out of timeouts” and a solution for uninsured Wyomingites was needed “right now.”
For legislators, though, it was “right later.” Even with work-requirement amendments (which the feds were likely to reject), and the insistently original interpolations of Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper), they ended up killing the whole thing. Wait another year, said Senate Majority Leader Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), and maybe we’ll get a better deal from the feds.
Without action, all we’re left with is politics … but that’s what this column is about. How will Mead’s change of heart sit with Wyoming voters?
History suggests it won’t sit very well. First, he loses the allegiance, and probably the votes, of those who rabidly agree with his original position – the Affordable Care Act must be stopped. But he’s not going to get a lot of love from those who share his new position, despite the Valentine from the Wyoming Coalition on Medicaid Solutions. Though he once said we should keep an “open mind” about Medicaid expansion, he opposed it for years, before he didn’t.
That fellow mentioned earlier who ran the Defense Department under George H.W. Bush also worked for President Gerald Ford, who changed his mind a few times as well. Ford took office after Richard Nixon resigned, and, vowing he wouldn’t run for the office, pardoned his predecessor to avoid what could have become a nightmarish constitutional battle. Then he decided to run after all. He lost.
“That was bad politics,” said Dick Cheney, Ford’s young chief of staff, of the pardon, “but it was in the best interest of the nation.”
And since this column is about politics, not the best interests of anyone, let’s just call Mead’s Medicaid dilemma a Norquist Twist.
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