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A method to the anti-Obamacare madness?

REUTERS/Jason Reed
When Sen. Ted Cruz made his all-night speech against the government spending bill a few nights ago, he likened defenders of Obamacare to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain arguing for appeasement of the Nazis.

Admit it, fellow Minnesotans — this latest outbreak of insanity in Washington caught you by surprise. Sure, you know our Congress is incapable of anything but inaction and bitter partisanship these days. You have learned not to expect any substantive policy-making from them. But a government shutdown and a real possibility of default on the federal debt – all over Obamacare? What is this, 2010?

Phillip Cryan

There’s a good reason that the latest round of bluster and brinksmanship in Washington – all-night speeches, predictions of Armageddon, desperate attempts to delay Obamacare for a year – has taken many of us in Minnesota by surprise. Much of the country remains in a kind of political time warp, rehashing again and again the crazed debates we remember from a few years ago, in which a vast expansion of commercial health insurance somehow figures as the arrival of “socialism.”

But here, we’ve moved on. For the last three years, Minnesota has moved steadily forward with the daunting, complex task of implementing Obamacare (officially, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act). We made progress even during the two years when Republican legislative majorities in St. Paul resisted implementation. And today the state’s new health-insurance exchange, MNSure, begins enrolling people in coverage, with the cheapest average premiums anywhere in the country. Tens of thousands of Minnesotans will each receive thousands of dollars in new tax credits to help them pay for commercial insurance in 2014. Our twin public programs for low-income Minnesotans – Medical Assistance and MinnesotaCare – will expand to cover more than 200,000 new people.  

Minnesota’s contrast with many other states

The contrast elsewhere in the country could not be more stark. More than half the states have chosen not to build health-insurance exchanges, opting instead to have the Obama administration establish exchanges for them. It’s a bizarre turn for states driven by the anti-federal-government political sentiments of the Tea Party and other extremists. And nearly half the states have rejected hundreds of millions of dollars in new federal support for expanding Medicaid eligibility. Elected leaders are preventing their states’ poorest citizens from accessing free health-care coverage with generous benefits, even though it would cost their states almost nothing to provide it.

That’s how much opponents of Obamacare hate this law. Their threats to shut down the government and possibly even tank our whole economy by defaulting on the federal debt are just the latest expressions of this abiding hatred.

So why the 2010 time warp? Why haven’t they moved on?

Are they just crazy?

I think the answer is no. There’s a method to their madness.

To be fair, there’s ample supporting evidence for the “they’re-just-crazy” theory. House Republicans have voted 41 times to repeal or otherwise dismantle Obamacare. In zero of those cases did they have a remotely plausible theory of how they’d get the Senate and president to agree.

When Sen. Ted Cruz made his all-night speech against the government spending bill a few nights ago, he likened defenders of Obamacare to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain arguing for appeasement of the Nazis. He then decided to vote in favor of the same bill he’d spent 21 hours attacking.

But the fierce political opposition is a lot less crazy than it may seem.

Ronald Reagan and Medicare

To understand why, let’s turn to our own political history. When the most popular government program we’ve ever known, universal health-insurance coverage for seniors (Medicare), was a proposal before Congress, here’s what Ronald Reagan had to say about it: “We are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.” Medicare, if passed into law, would herald the end of freedom. Reagan even recorded a 10-minute LP record for mass distribution offering a “history lesson” on how socialists designed Medicare as a ploy to destroy American capitalism. Sound familiar?

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Ronald Reagan was no Ted Cruz. He was an extraordinarily effective politician, with a keen ear for the sentiments of independent voters in the middle of the American electorate. But Reagan’s reasons for using such incendiary, loony-tunes rhetoric against Medicare in the 1960s were more or less identical to the reasons today’s Republicans in Washington are doing everything in their power to obstruct Obamacare. They learned a simple, clear political lesson from FDR’s Social Security: When Democrats create new government programs that offer tangible, much-needed benefits to voters, voters remember it and vote more Democrats into office.

The strongest proof of the political importance of this lesson is that in congressional elections – to which we are subjected, mercilessly, every two years – both sides spend hundreds of millions of dollars accusing the other party of planning to cut Medicare.

Republicans simply cannot afford to have millions of voters associate this 2014 expansion of health-insurance coverage with Democrats. Even with all its imperfections (and there are many: This reform is not nearly as strong and straightforward a piece of progress as Medicare or Social Security), Obamacare represents a long-term political threat to Republicans, and they know it.

We should be grateful that here in Minnesota, we haven’t been mired in the resulting political paralysis. We’ve not only implemented Obamacare, but also built upon some of its strengths to push toward more comprehensive progress in providing affordable, high-quality health care to all Minnesotans. It’s sad that so few other states have seized the opportunities Obamacare presents for innovation, progress and further reform.

Furor likely will continue

The truly bad news for anyone surprised by this week’s apparent lunacy in Washington is that the furor over Obamacare – the political time warp – is not likely to die down anytime between now and the November 2014 elections. Even if – let us pray – they stop threatening government shutdowns and debt-defaults, opponents of Obamacare will almost certainly continue with their denunciations of it as “socialism” and their desperate efforts to delay or repeal it.

But eventually the dust will settle. Some of the newly insured will still struggle to afford the costs of insurance, and there will surely be many other problems still in need of fixing in our health care system. But at the end of the day, tens of millions more Americans will have health insurance. For many of them, it will be dramatically more affordable than anything they could get before Obamacare. It will keep many families out of bankruptcy. And it will save no small number of lives.

The real kicker, in the end, is that even after the dust settles Republicans will never get to pretend to be champions and defenders of these benefits, like they did with Medicare. Voters might well have forgotten, after a few years and a few billion dollars in attack ads, which party supported the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.” But thanks to the Tea Party’s scornful rechristening of that wonky law – a name resisted at first by Democrats, for some reason, but now widely embraced – voters will have an awfully hard time forgetting which president passed it.

Phillip Cryan is the organizing director of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota, a 16,000-member health-care workers’ union. From November 2011 to January 2013, he served on the task force that advised Gov. Mark Dayton on design of the state’s new health insurance exchange, MNSure. He holds a master’s degree in public policy from the Goldman School at the University of California-Berkeley.   


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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by David Frenkel on 10/01/2013 - 11:01 am.

    Social Media

    It would be an interesting discussion as to how social media has helped change the political landscape. For better or worst in the ‘old’ days political deals were cut in backrooms and over a drink at the local watering hole. With social media any shoulder rubbing with political opponents gets twisted and photo-shopped and in lightening speed is on the Internet. Politicians are afraid to talk to each other even those in the same political party that might have differing views on a subject.
    Washington has always been about politics (i.e. reelection) and lobbying. With nearly a Billion dollars a year spent on lobbying it is no wonder that lobbying has a dramatic effect on legislation.
    There is an old saying in DC that every decision is a political decision. These decisions as we are seeing are not necessarily what is best for the country.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 10/01/2013 - 11:14 am.

    All That and a Bag of Chips

    There, is, of course, one more little reason why the GOP is so desperate for Obmacare not to be implemented:

    They’ve been lying through the teeth about it continuously ever since it was passed. So many of their lies have been so LOUD and so COMPLETELY FALSE,…

    that the implementation of Obamacare, even with its flaws, will make it clear what a completely dishonest organization the GOP really is.

    Indeed, the vast majority of Americans may come to regard the GOP as being accurately described in the Title of Al Franken’s old book: “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.”

    The GOP could widely (and accurately, I fear) come to be thought of as “The Party of Lies.”

    After Obamacare is implemented the GOP might find that they have trouble getting anybody to believe them about ANYTHING for the foreseeable future.

    That they could not see the danger of this is a testament to the power and depth of the delusions from which they suffer: delusions born of deep (and unacknowledged) dysfunctions.

  3. Submitted by kevin terrell on 10/01/2013 - 11:25 am.

    A succinct response…

    As noted by Mr. Franklin:

    “When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.”

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 10/05/2013 - 11:04 pm.

      That’s not a Franklin quote

      It is not found in any of his writings.

      And even if he said it, that’s the rhetorical device known as “appeal to authority,” saying that a sentiment is correct just because some famous person said it.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/01/2013 - 11:52 am.

    The problem

    with any socialist policy is that it requires mandatory participation from all the people or it will fail. This is the antithesis of a free society. If the policy or program is such a good idea, let the people decide whether or not they want to participate and most or all will. Freedom of choice is the foundation of a free society.

    That’s why they built a wall around the Soviet Union to prevent people from escaping and why people were shot trying to escape.

    But my fear is this society has devolved to the point where people are actually volunteering to become wards of the state and, as this writer indicates, are genuinely puzzled as to why some are still trying to remain free people.

    The attempt to grab control of 18% of the economy should remind even freedom-loving democrats, should any still exist, that when government attempts to control the economy for the good of the people, they end up controlling the people for the good of the economy.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/01/2013 - 12:59 pm.

      …people are actually volunteering to become wards of the state…

      So it is far nobler to suffer your illness without treatment?

      It is far nobler to let your child die?

      It is far nobler to let a cancer episode prevent you from ever getting coverage again?

      It is far nobler to have choose between food and medicine?

      ….grab control of 18% of the economy…

      My, what a fearsome world you live in. Or have you forgotten that the American people are the government. Under whose tender mercies is that 18% run already?

    • Submitted by Larry Moran on 10/01/2013 - 03:44 pm.

      Mandatory Participation

      I think people opposed to the PPACA don’t realize that people’s health and healthcare are unique: healthcare is optional until it isn’t. A healthy person can choose not to participate in the insurance market as they do with other parts of the economy (cell phones, houses, Happy Meals at McDonalds) and it doesn’t affect me. But when a healthy person gets sick and has no insurance our societal decision is to not let them die (or remain very sick or infect others); that person’s decision not to buy insurance absolutely affects me. I live in Hennepin County. Someone who gets injured or sick with no insurance probably ends up at HCMC and receives very expensive treatment. Because of the way HCMC is funded I pay for that person’s decision not to have insurance. To (badly) paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, a person’s decision not to purchase health insurance extends only as far as my wallet, and not in it.

      I will ignore your slam at democrats (no freedom loving democrats? really?) and say again that healthcare is unique; it;s not optional for most people. Try as we might I don’t see any evidence that the free market is keeping healthcare costs low. Until the last three years of course, as the effects of the PPACA have begun to take hold.

  5. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 10/01/2013 - 12:34 pm.


    At the end of the day, tens of thousands of new people may be insured, but we, as a country, could also be bankrupt.

    The democrats viewed the health care problem as lack of access to insurance. They totally ignored the cause of the problem, which is uncontrolled escalation in the cost of health care. That’s been swept under the rug.

    So the answer is another entitlement program without the funding to pay for it, digging us ever deeper into a hole.

    • Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 10/01/2013 - 03:05 pm.

      Costs Are ALREADY Coming Down

      As to the bankrupting of the country – the real cost escalation has been in the cost of specialists – primarily in the outrageous rates they’ve been able to charge as compared to anywhere else in the world,…

      the cost of technology – some of it justified as bona fide miraculous improvement, but a LOT of it just slapped in place to pad the pockets of medical facilities and said specialists (especially when they own and profit from that technology),…

      and, of course, the cost of pharmaceuticals (cost control negotiations having been OUTLAWED in the Medicare – related prescription drug program our Republican friends passed a few years back).

      It’s quite likely that, in the future, the government, BECAUSE of “Obamacare” will have far more leverage to control those costs than it has in the past. Indeed, it may be forced to control costs because of rising public outcry regarding increase premiums in the medical insurance offered over the “Obamacare” exchanges.

      The country will only go bankrupt if the medical industry decides that it is worth it to them to continue to increase their profits and their exceedingly high compensation while destroying the country they live in,…

      and, of course, if our elected representatives decide that it is worth destroying the country in order to continue to receive generous support for their reelection campaigns.

  6. Submitted by john milton on 10/01/2013 - 01:57 pm.

    Minnesota contrast?

    In an otherwise informative article, Phillip Cryan made a grievous misstatement: “We should be grateful that here in Minnesota, we haven’t been mired in the resulting political paralysis.” I have to wonder where Mr. Cryan was during the eight years of Governor Tim Pawlenty, when that Republican governor’s obsession with seeking national office led to the “no new taxes” syndrome. During Pawlenty’s tenure, Minnesota declined in support for k-12 education, higher education, healthcare, maintenance of infrastructure, and environmental protection. And the burden for public services was shifted to the regressive local property tax. He left office in 2011 as the Tea Party arrived on the scene, but he was surely a founding spirit for that club of clowns.

  7. Submitted by Josh McCabe on 10/01/2013 - 02:38 pm.

    Fund? Defund?

    “So the answer is another entitlement program without the funding to pay for it, digging us ever deeper into a hole.”

    With the greatest respect, Mr. Schumann, wasn’t the republican argument that we should DE-fund Obamacare? How can something that supposedly wasn’t funded also be the object of an attempt to de-fund?

    And where then, given that I agree with you that one critical issue at play is uncontrolled escalation of costs, is the GOP solution to that problem? I would have liked to see that, and would have listened with interest. Please, in all seriousness, point me to the GOP Senator or Representative who spoke on this subject in the last 5 years and suggested solutions that were real. If this person exists, they should be credited with courage and intellect.

    Personally, I don’t understand what would have been wrong with a single payer system. But Obamacare is the compromise, born out of ideas once acceptable to the GOP as I recall, in the time of Clinton’s first term. Perplexing indeed when we reverse our own position so regularly, and with such viciousness.

  8. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/01/2013 - 06:41 pm.

    Single payer system

    The problem with a single payer system is that’s a Marxist model and America is based on a free society model. And any republican who may have once supported the mandatory model are no longer in power or have any influence within the conservative movement for good reason.

  9. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 10/05/2013 - 11:06 pm.

    Marxist model?

    Right, in Marxist Canada, Marxist Australia, Marxist Israel, Marxist Britain, Marxist Taiwan, Marxist South Korea…

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