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Catastrophic Success

The perils of a ‘do everything’ Democratic Congress.

Jan 3, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 16 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Congressmen talk, but governors govern and can present competing conservative models of government to put alongside Obama’s ideas. New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Virginia’s Bob McDonnell, elected in 2009, have had great success already cutting taxes and spending, and the new class seems eager to follow their lead. These new governors are not only younger (and much more conservative), but also far more diverse. Republicans now have four female governors, two Hispanics, and two Indian-Americans—a more heterodox crew than the Democrats currently have. Some may find their way onto national tickets and, in doing so, change the idea of the party as the domain of the old, white, and male. They will vie for the lead in the fight against health care, and fittingly so, and it was this that elected them. In the coming two years, this will be their main battle. Democrats said that losing the House was a price well worth paying, but the loss of the states may be in the long run a great deal more costly. One of these governors may turn into the president who signs health care’s repeal into law.

At the same time, don’t be too sure that Obamacare is forever, at least not in the form that it passed. A Republican president could sign a repeal that was passed by a simple majority. The Supreme Court could declare it unconstitutional, as did the court in Virginia, which was only 1 of 24 state-propelled lawsuits, now making their way up the chain. (The case could reach the  Court just in time for the 2012 election: with what impact no one can guess.) In the meantime, the GOP has made plans for a campaign of attrition, designed to soften it up for that coming election, and designed less to upend it in one single motion than to inflict many cuts from a thousand directions, through which its life blood may trickle away. The House can block funds needed for implementation: money to hire the IRS agents needed to enforce the individual mandate; funds to run the board that approves cuts in Medicare; funds to help states set up insurance exchanges the states may not want to see formed. 

The House will make life hard for the Democrats in the Senate, 23 of whom are up for reelection in 2012, and 13 of whom come from states in which Obamacare is extremely unpopular and which took a sharp turn to the right in the recent midterm elections. It will force them to vote over and over on health care, choosing between their constituents and their party and president, knowing their “aye” votes will find their way into commercials run by their GOP challengers, and their “nay” votes will enrage their own party’s base. When they voted “aye” for the first time (in December 2009) it was bad enough, but they had no way of knowing that the endgame would become quite so ugly, that the act itself would become quite so unpopular, or that Obama would become quite so unable to save them from voters’ hostility; now they know all of these things.

A parallel line of attack will be opened up by state governments, where the new crop of governors (and state representatives) will come in quite handy indeed. Complaining that compliance with the new law would bankrupt her state, Governor-elect Nikki Haley of South Carolina urged Obama to repeal his signature act outright, and then asked for opt-outs for some of its major provisions. In Virginia, the State Senate declared it illegal to mandate that the state’s residents buy health insurance, setting up a confrontation with the federal government. In Minnesota, Governor Tim Pawlenty directed state agencies to “reject participation in Obamacare unless required by law or consistent with existing state policy.” Some states are asking for waivers to opt out of parts of the health care reform act, others are considering dropping the Medicaid program in response to the expansion the new act demands. At the same time, they will pour on the political pressure in Washington: “We are going to form an oversight entity that will identify Washington programs that aren’t working, go to Capitol Hill and testify on how they can be handled better and propose . . . practices for how states can govern themselves without undue interference from the feds,” Republican Governors’ Association head Haley Barbour told the Wall Street Journal. What “Washington programs” might he have in mind? 

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