President Bill Clinton was given a tall order.
Speaking last week at the presidential center bearing his name, he had the task of presenting a case for public acceptance of the still-unpopular Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. But part of his argument has the potential to undo a state compromise that allowed Arkansas to expand Medicaid.
Clinton was an obvious choice for the herculean task — a popular hometown Southern Democrat selling a monumental complicated policy of an unpopular president. The backers of the health care reform law, known widely as Obamacare, would much rather have Arkansans focus on Clinton than on Obama.
Clinton’s argument boiled down to this: The Obamacare law is not perfect.It needs to be improved and tweaked. He listed several specific parts of the law he believes need attention. He said that Republicans and Democrats have to work together to fix those things, which can only be done if Republicans stop fighting the law all together and instead focus on reform.
His argument stopped short of a full-throated endorsement. He has drawn some criticism for that. Listing pros and cons of an already unpopular policy is not the way to get people to buy in. It requires going all-in; otherwise people will focus on the negative.
Going all-in and pretending perfection wasn’t an option, though, because almost everyone already knows the law has some problems. The administration is already delaying implementation of certain aspects of the program such as employer mandates to provide coverage. People feel the impact of rising health care premiums. Anyone who doesn’t believe that should ask a teacher in the public schools.
Another problem Clinton faced was the fact that many people — especially those on the far left or right — already have an opinion and are not likely to change their minds based on a speech.
So, the former president seemed to be pitching independent-minded voters. The average Arkansan cares more about the trains running on time than they do about a philosophical argument on the role of government. Therefore, Clinton’s appeal was to prevent a train wreck by embracing the reality that the train has left the station and Americans need to be sure railroad tracks are in place.
Part of his analogy could cause headaches for those laying the rails.
During the speech, Clinton pointed to the Republican House Speaker Davy Carter and the Republican Senate Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux sitting up front alongside Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe as an example of bipartisan cooperation. He praised their work in passing the Arkansas Private Option as an example to the country to do what he was asking and embrace the Affordable Care Act while pushing for reforms.
"Now whether or not you agree with the Affordable Care Act, Arkansas citizens are going to pay for it just like the citizens of every other state. So in deciding whether you support the fact that this private option is set up and will later have to be funded by the Legislature I think in February, you should consider what turning back the money means," Clinton said.
"But as (Gov. Beebe) said to me that this doesn’t make any more sense than turning back federal highway funds. We pay 18.3 cents a gallon in federal gas tax. How would you feel if someone got up and gave a speech saying ‘I don’t really like some of the requirements that the Federal Highway Administration puts on us if we take this federal money. So why don’t we just not take it and send our money to Texas,’" Clinton asked. "You would think if somebody said that they were three bricks short of a full load."
While the example of the Arkansas Private Option underscored the overall point Clinton was trying to make, it is a dangerous one for Democrats to push. The private option barely hurdled the three-fourths required votes of both legislative chambers last spring and the same requirement is needed again next year in the fiscal session to continue funding the plan.
"I continue to oppose Obamacare as it is bad policy for the country. At the same time, I still believe we did the right thing for Arkansas," Speaker Carter told me after the speech.
Carter will have his hands full keeping Republicans who were on the fence last time on board during the fiscal session, which takes place shortly before the May primaries. Those conservative legislators are likely not to be persuaded by Clinton’s free federal money argument. In their view, the private option was Arkansas’ attempt to spare the state from some of the pains of Obamacare. I doubt they will appreciate being praised as an example of the success of a project they so vehemently oppose.
Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog — The Tolbert Report — is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His e-mail is jason@TolbertReport.com.