Clearly, the substance of the argument is different. But for anyone who grew up in the South during the ’50s and ’60s, the rhythm of the debate over health care has become eerily familiar.
We have John Lewis on the receiving end of invective from an angry crowd. A tortured Congress squeezes out a bill after decades of hesitation. A jubilant president signs it.
Back home, the Legislature immediately attempts a declaration of state sovereignty. The governor calls Congress’ action “a travesty,” and presses for a lawsuit to block what he declares to be an unconstitutional expansion of federal power.
And Democrats, just like in the old days, suddenly find themselves worrying about being tied too closely to a president and a ruling Washington regime.
Gov. Sonny Perdue has been eager to help. “It is imperative that current candidates for elected office publicly state their plans to either support the Obama-Pelosi legislation or fight for the people of Georgia,” the Republican governor declared, shortly after the Sunday night vote.
Perdue has loudly pressed Attorney General Thurbert Baker, a Democratic candidate for governor, to challenge the constitutionality of the health care law.
But so far, Baker and other Democrats haven’t risen to the bait.
Every GOP candidate in Georgia, down to your half-hearted handshaker for county land surveyor, has generated at least one press release vowing not to rest until the health care law is undone.
U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey, the Marietta obstetrician, may be the exception that proves the rule. The GOP congressman confessed a liking for some parts of the legislation. “I might not fully agree with completely repealing and starting over,” he told CNN on Tuesday.
But Democrats — particularly those seeking a place on the November ballot — have been much more cautious. Many have been here before, and understand the game.
In health care, as Perdue recognizes, Republicans have an issue that could nationalize every statewide race in Georgia.
Democrats, especially those in the hunt for governor, have long understood that keeping the focus on Republican performance at the state Capitol — on water, transportation and education — is their key to a comeback.
There’s another reason Democrats have been quiet since the Sunday vote. If race is an intractable topic that changes only generationally, attitudes toward health care are far more likely to be pocketbook opinions. And changeable.
At an Atlanta fund-raiser on Monday, former Virginia governor Tim Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, counseled Georgia candidates to wait for voters to absorb the benefits of the new health care law.
“All the bogeyman arguments the other guys created were fiction, and the American public will see that,” Kaine said in an interview.
Leading Democrats are following his advice.
Baker, the attorney general, rejected the governor’s lawsuit challenge on Wednesday. “This litigation is likely to fail and will consume significant amounts of taxpayers’ hard-earned money in the process,” he wrote in reply.
Former Gov. Roy Barnes was the most critical. “This health care bill is a failure of leadership on both sides. It’s what’s wrong with Washington and it’s what’s wrong with the state Capitol,” Barnes said. “My greatest disappointment is that the insurance companies were not regulated further — which means the special interests won.”
Perdue has said the new health care law will force states into increased Medicaid spending they can’t afford. But Barnes said that particular worry is premature.
“That doesn’t kick in until 2017. We’re furloughing teachers today. You can have an opinion over it, fine. But don’t waste political capital on it,” he said.
Like his rivals, House Democratic Leader DuBose Porter said parts of the health care law “are very much needed.” He cited the portions that permit parents to keep grown children on their policies until age 26, and an end to coverage refusals because of pre-existing conditions.
“That touches a lot of families down here,” Porter said.
The Dublin lawmaker voted against a resolution this week that would have declared Georgians immune from the reach of the federal health care law.
Efforts like that, Porter said, accomplish nothing and sour the ties that Georgia needs with Washington if it is to address its transportation woes. “When we do things like that, that tears relationships down, it hurts us in the future, and it hurts getting people in Georgia back to work,” he said.
David Poythress, the former National Guard commander, said he’ll wait for the dust to settle. But his bottom-line judgment was this: “It’s the law of the land. It’s up to the Congress and the president of the United States to make it work. And we’ll see if they make it work.”
The other two Democrats most affected by the turmoil over health care are Ken Hodges and Rob Teilhet, both candidates for attorney general. They were largely in agreement about a legal challenge to the new system.
Both dismissed it as an unnecessary expense. Hodges, who has significant Republican support, asked whether state-paid attorneys should be diverted from water-war issues or death penalty cases.
“It’s premature and nothing but political-grandstanding,” he said.
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