Fact checkers giveth and fact checkers taketh away. Mitch McConnell — poised to fulfill his career ambition of rising to Senate Majority Leader if he can survive his own reelection back home in Kentucky, both increasingly likely prospects — demonstrated as much this week in his only debate with the Democrat trying to oust him.
The cable-news catnip out of the event was the continued refusal of McConnell’s challenger, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, to say whom she voted for in the 2012 election. It was a craven dodge explained by her need to quarantine her bid from contamination by President Obama, a politically lethal toxin in the Bluegrass State.
Grimes made sure the character questions flowed in the other direction, too. Amid lively exchanges on issues of real relevance to voters — the minimum wage, health care reform, the future of the coal industry — she did her best to cast McConnell as an out-of-touch plutocrat. The barbs had McConnell calling in the refs, pointing out that the Washington Post‘s Fact Checker blog had challenged two of Grimes’ overextended claims about him.
But the gotcha game is dangerous. On Thursday, the selfsame Fact Checker trained its attention on the debate and called out McConnell for what it termed a “slick and misleading” statement of his own on the new health care law.
Indeed, McConnell’s answer was a master class in dissembling, a series of individually accurate sentences that still managed to be much less than the sum of their parts. Essentially, the senator was seeking to square his steadfast advocacy for ripping out the Affordable Care Act “root and branch,” with the fact that in Kentucky, where Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear has emerged as one of the law’s most outspoken champions, it has extended health coverage to some 500,000 people and is widely judged a giant win for the state.
Clawing insurance access back from such a significant chunk of the population, most of whom got covered under the law’s expansion of Medicaid, is not an attractive position. So McConnell suggested Kentucky could keep what it had established even if the federal law were to be repealed. What he didn’t — and doesn’t — say is how. And the answer is hardly simple, considering the state health exchange (called Kynect, Beshear’s shrewd Obamacare rebranding) relies on the feds — for industry regulations, the individual mandate, and most significantly, the initial funding for the Medicaid expansion. Said McConnell in the debate: “And with regard to the Medicaid expansion, that’s a state decision. The states can decide whether to expand Medicaid or not. In our state, the governor decided to expand Medicaid.”
McConnell sounded a different note when I asked him about this back in December. We were in Pikeville, in the impoverished eastern reach of the state, and the senator had just wrapped up his 58th “hospital town hall” event, a series that saw him crisscrossing Kentucky to warn healthcare providers of the chaos in store as the law took force. At the time, Kentucky represented a bright spot for an otherwise-troubled Obamacare. Tens of thousands were coming forward to take advantage of the new, subsidized benefits, even as the disastrous rollout of healthcare.gov continued to dominate the national conversation. Kentucky provided a fascinating theater for the law’s implementation: a ruby-red warren of deep Obama antipathy nevertheless embracing his signature law over the objections of its own senior senator.
And McConnell wasn’t just another Republican opponent. As Fortune reported, in the Senate, he was chief architect of the campaign to sink it, moving in November of 2008 — two months before President Obama was inaugurated — to begin organizing the Senate Republican strategy for facing down the President. I asked McConnell how he would propose covering those now receiving healthcare access for the first time if Congress repealed the law and started from scratch. “This is going to leave 30 million uninsured,” he said, referring to a Congressional Budget Office report that estimated that number nationally would remain without coverage despite the law, “and you can debate a Medicaid expansion on another day. I personally don’t think this state or this government, with a $17 trillion debt, can afford a Medicaid expansion.” I asked again: How do you get that segment of the population covered then? “They’re not going to be covered anyway,” McConnell replied.
In the moment, and since then, I understood him to mean that those who’d lose the coverage they’d recently received would just have to fend for themselves, as they had before Obamacare.
In the wake of the Fact Checker’s critique, I ran my December exchange by McConnell spokesman Don Stewart. He heard it differently, and I think he’s right: McConnell was referring to the 30 million the CBO projected would remain uninsured, not those newly covered under the law. But the question stands: What would McConnell propose as a replacement? And the answer, finally, is that there is no answer. “He’s said to replace Obamacare would require a step-by-step approach,” Stewart says, “developed in a cooperative way with Members in the committee-led process.”
McConnell can get away with this in part because Grimes has been unwilling to make the issue central in the campaign. She’s been mealy-mouthed about the law, including refusing to say whether she would have voted for it — surely a more consequential evasion than the one over her 2012 presidential choice. The other reason is that the repeal talk itself, from McConnell and other Republicans, is less than serious. But if he ascends to Majority Leader, McConnell will face pressure from his right flank to rally his own ranks around significant changes to the law. As McConnell wraps up his campaign — his sixth appeal to represent his home state, his first to lead the U.S. Senate — Kentucky voters deserve a clearer sense of where he’s headed.