JACK SPENCER: A message that misses the mark

Political messaging can often be the result of careful evaluation of polls and focus group reactions. But like so many other statistically-driven processes, properly applying the information can be more of an art form than a science.

As regards Michigan’s No. 1 legislative issue of the day – Medicaid expansion – Gov. Rick Snyder and Republicans who support expansion appear to have adopted the wrong message for their side of the issue.

Last summer when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Obamacare was constitutional, it also ruled that the federal government could not force states to expand Medicaid.

Expanding Medicaid is a vital step needed for the implementation of Obamacare nationwide. In addition, it would provide a dynamic that would make it more difficult to repeal or alter Obamacare. By expanding Medicaid, a state establishes a new entitlement for hundreds of thousands able-bodied adults without children.

Entitlements, once established, are virtually impossible to undo. As former President Ronald Reagan once said “No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”

When the administration of Barack Obama offered billions of federal dollars to states willing to expand Medicaid, it knew exactly what it was doing. The idea was to create a dilemma for every state government in the land controlled completely or partly by Republicans.

Here’s the dilemma:

Should the state take the federal dollars now and hope that Congress, coupled with other factors, will be able to force changes to, or the repeal of, Obamacare? Or:

Should the state join the fight against Obamacare by refusing to do the expansion?

Snyder chose the first option. He wants to take the money now. When he claims Medicaid expansion in Michigan has nothing to do with Obamacare he’s not just spinning. From his perspective, it’s not the job of Michigan’s governor to fight Obamacare. Clearly, Snyder either believes the fight against Obamacare has been lost or that it is someone else’s responsibility to continue the battle.

Basically, Snyder’s decision on Medicaid expansion was a choice between the lesser of two evils forced upon him by the federal government. It is highly likely that this is the argument Republican lawmakers — almost all of whom disapprove of Obamacare — have heard.

“The governor has evaluated the dilemma and believes this is the best course of action to take under the circumstances,” they were probably told, or words to that effect.

According to reliable sources, the most successful argument in persuading the 28 House Republicans who voted for Medicaid expansion was that the federal government would eventually force Medicaid expansion anyway, under increasingly less agreeable terms.

This, however, is not the message Snyder and Republicans who support Medicaid expansion have been carrying to the public. Beginning in February, when Snyder announced that he wanted Medicaid expansion, he and fellow Republicans who support his position on this issue, have claimed that expansion would create more access to primary care providers and reduce the burden on hospitals and small businesses.

Does this sound familiar? It should; because these claims parallel claims made in support of Obamacare. They are essentially based on the same false pretense behind nationalized health-care the world over. It’s the idea that “coverage” necessarily means access to better health-care. Whether or not the actual impact of the “coverage” is likely to meet the promised results doesn’t seem to matter.

The point is that Republicans overwhelmingly reject Obamacare and the rosy scenario upon which it is based. So, at the end of the day, this message is likely to appeal primarily to those who like Obamacare. But these people would already be inclined to support Medicaid expansion anyway. In other words, the message probably doesn’t win over many of those who aren’t on Snyder’s side of the issue to begin with.

It would have made more sense to make the same arguments for Medicaid expansion that were made to Republican lawmakers. But apparently those who crafted the political message Snyder has been using couldn’t resist the urge to make overstated promises. Rather than say: “The Governor is trying to make the best of a raw deal.” They felt compelled to say “What we plan to do will be great.”

Now, after the past seven months, it’s too late to alter the message.

Meanwhile, House Bill 4714, the Medicaid expansion measure, is in the Senate. If Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, decides to allow the Democrats to provide a majority of the “yes” votes needed for passage, the bill will pass. But if he does this, his relationship with his caucus is likely to be pertinently damaged. Thus far, he has held out against relying on the Democrats to gain passage.

The game right now in the Senate is about getting at least 13 GOP senators to vote “yes.” At this stage the negotiating is almost surely straight-forward dealing. “Senator, what can we do for you that would persuade you to vote ‘yes?’”

Against this is the very real possibility that a “yes” vote could look absolutely horrible within a matter of weeks or months. And, after all, next year is an election year for state Senators.

If the Senate passes the measure, the bill must go back to the House for concurrence. That prospect invites some intriguing questions. Will all of the 28 Republican who voted “yes” the first time, do so again? Remember; this would be a different version of the bill than what they voted on in June. That alone could provide cover for some who might want to change their vote to “no.”

How much slippage in Republican support for the bill would prevent House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, from once again seeking passage by turning to the Democrats to cast most of the “yes” votes? If only 23 Republicans out of the 59 in the House supported it, would that be enough? If only 19 supported it, would that be enough?

What will the House Republicans who voted “no” in June do? Medicaid expansion is inexorably tied to Obamacare. Michigan’s decision to expand or not expand is of national importance. On an issue of this magnitude, opponents of expansion in the House might have been expected to put up at least some kind of a fight (on the floor or in the caucus room) against passage.

However, when the bill was brought up in June, many of the “no” voters believed a deal was in place under which the Senate would quickly pass it. As a result, there was a general sense of inevitability coupled with a lack of organization among the members who opposed Medicaid expansion. This, in part, explains why none of them attempted to prevent the bill from moving.

Another factor might have played a role in the lack of resistance in June as well. A loss of institutional memory, due to terms limits, could exist.

Legislative leaders drum the idea into the heads of rank and file members that a caucus can’t function unless there is respect for varying points of view. This is true and necessary. But it is also a two-way street. When a significant portion of a majority caucus is basically treated like the minority party -— as was the case with roughly half of House Republicans on the June Medicaid expansion vote — they have a right to act like the minority party and stand up for their position.

This scenario has played out many times in the past without damaging the caucus involved. Claims that attempts by caucus members to stop legislation they oppose would fatally compromise the caucus are just hyperbole. However, it might be hyperbole that works on the lawmakers of today who know next to nothing about legislative battles in the past.

If the Medicaid expansion bill returns to the House, it will be interesting to see if those opposed to the bill will once again be as docile as they apparently were in June.

Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.