Florida House Republicans do have egg on their face for the dogmatic opposition to any expansion of Medicaid. The Florida Democratic Party’s communications staff did an excellent job of fanning the flames of this last week on social media and in the press, while the party’s house campaign arm aggressively made robo-calls into the districts of the vulnerable House Republicans. It is again worth noting at this point that 16 House Republicans currently represent districts where Charlie Crist won at least a plurality of the vote in November 2014.
But the arrogance of House Republicans is not surprising – Democrats in Florida have time and again failed to make anything substantive that happens in the legislature stick when running opposition campaigns to GOP House incumbents. Most House Republicans sitting in vulnerable seats no doubt believe 2016 will be more of the same, as the Medicaid expansion issue fades or never really sticks since so few Floridians actually have any knowledge of what happens during Legislative Session. Digging in on an ideological principle has worked for House Republicans time and again over the course of the last 15 years.
The Democrats in the House have also typically lacked the message discipline over a long period of time to make issues like this stick. The constitutionality or lack thereof regarding the House Republican leadership’s decision to SINE DIE early will have zero bearing on the electorate and simply represents an exciting talking point for the chattering class. But Medicaid expansion could be a big deal.
Over the years while right-wing conservatives in both parties have continued to attack health care programs, general acceptance among the electorate and even the Republican establishment developed over Social Security, Medicare and the initial development of Medicaid. Eventually opposition to these programs became unpalatable for mainstream politicians, and those who did oppose them better have been exceedingly personally popular (as some of the Conservative Democratic Senators FDR tried to campaign against in the 1938 primaries were) or come from very safe districts. In time the entire Affordable Care Act (ACA) WILL be popular nationally even if FOX News, Newsmax, The National Review, The Weekly Standard and The Wall Street Journal Editorial Page continue to fan the flames of opposition.
In time, opposition to the expansion of Medicaid might be a completely unacceptable position for a Republican sitting in an even remotely marginal district. But given the track record of Florida House Democrats in making popular positions matter in state legislative races, the House Republicans surely felt safe in sticking on principle regading this issue. The key now will be for the House Democratic political team as well as the Florida Democratic Party to make this THE issue that matters – anything Health Care related should be what Democrats across the state run on.
Unfortunately, Democrats in Florida have never been very comfortable on this issue. Many ran for cover in 1994 when Bill and Hillary Clinton pushed Health Care reform. A year later when Speaker of the Florida House Peter Rudy Wallace perhaps sensing he’d be the last Democrat to run the body for at least a generation pushed the idea of some sort of state version of reform, he faced strong opposition within his caucus. The idea was dropped, and many Democrats voted against Governor Chiles attempt to recoup Medicaid dollars by suing the Tobacco companies. Thankfully the Governor’s veto of a Republican bill that had lots of Democratic support was sustained by one single vote (that of Republican Ginny Brown-Waite who flipped her vote at the last minute) in the Senate.
In the 2000’s Democrats avoided the issue and then in 2010 Florida Democrats ran like wild away from President Obama’s ACA. Following Charlie Crist’s 2014 Gubernatorial election loss, some Democratic insiders blamed his embrace of the ACA, clearly forgetting Alex Sink’s run for cover attitude toward it four years earlier had also resulted in a statewide defeat. Now, while the legislative leadership embraces the issue 17 months before an election, will the party’s candidates have the wherewithal and discipline to run HARD on this issue (not merely mention it as one in a laundry list of various issue positions) and not be moved by the thinking of establishment political consultants?
Embracing the Health Care issue and its importance to working class Floridians MUST be among the two or three most critical moves Democrats in Florida make in this election cycle. If they do stay on message and disciplined the dominoes might begin to fall on a map where about a quarter of the House Republican Caucus currently sit in potentially vulnerable seats. A major sea change could be at hand if the Democrats do this right.