McConnell’s poetic nightmare: How crass Obamacare sabotage could end his career

Once upon a time, backing Obamacare's repeal was a popular position. Then nearly 400,000 Kentuckians got healthcare

Topics: Obamacare, Affordable Care Act, Mitch McConnell, Mary Landrieu, Medicaid, Editor's Picks, GOP, The Right, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, Alaska,

McConnell's poetic nightmare: How crass Obamacare sabotage could end his careerMitch McConnell (Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Back in 2013, when was broken and the Affordable Care Act faced a grimly uncertain future, I imagined a future in which Obamacare rolled into a disaster mitigated only by the existence of a few bright spots — the states that had competently developed their own exchanges and were successfully expanding coverage, untethered from the horrendous rollout of the federal marketplace.

Most of those were reliably liberal states like California and Connecticut. But one of them was Kentucky, whose Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear had singlehandedly expanded the state’s Medicaid program and built one of the best functioning enrollment websites in the country.

When I wrote this article in mid-November, signups were embarrassingly low, but Kentucky had accepted President Obama’s offer to allow insurers to reinstate canceled plans and was already reducing its uninsured population. Under the circumstances, I wondered what this all meant for Mitch McConnell. As Senate Republican leader, and a contender in a nasty primary, he was obligated to redouble his commitment to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But as a general election candidate and the senior senator from Kentucky, he would have an obligation to offer his constituents more than an open-ended pledge to return tens of thousands of state residents to the ranks of the uninsured.

McConnell’s current position — his position for the past three and a half years — is that the law “needs to be eliminated and we need to start over.”

But before Obamacare, over 17 percent of non-elderly Kentuckians were uninsured. If Obamacare knocks that figure into the single digits next year…how long will his position hold? His leadership role is about to come into exquisite tension with his responsibility to his own constituents.

I think that moment is finally upon us.

Kentucky says it booked 77,044 enrollments in private qualified health plans and 286,222 Medicaid enrollments through March 31. A total of more than 360,000 through Kynect (the state’s exchange) alone. State officials confirmed to me Wednesday that the numbers do not include enrollments through outside channels, and that their preliminary analysis suggests that 75 percent (or more than 270,000) were previously uninsured.

That’s over 40 percent of the state’s entire uninsured population. If the number holds and improves then Obamacare has already reduced the state’s total, and non-elderly, uninsurance rate from double to single digits. And McConnell’s position is that the double-digit number should return. That’s probably not quite as politically unsupportable as, say, advocating a direct increase in the unemployment rate, but generally speaking it is not advisable politics.

Of course, Kentucky hasn’t elected a Democratic senator in over 20 years. It’s a conservative state, and McConnell might be able to get away with it. But you can see how in other states, over time, and maybe sooner than later in Kentucky, the repeal proposition will collapse.

This view of things places other states’ refusal to expand Medicaid in a new and extraordinarily political light. In general, the governors who have refused the Medicaid expansion have done so out of a combination of conviction, personal ambition and spite. But in states like Louisiana and North Carolina the effect has been to deny Democratic incumbents the ability to tout a coverage expansion as extraordinary as Kentucky’s. Or, more effectively, attack opponents for proposing to nearly double the uninsurance rate.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., for instance, is attacking Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal for not expanding Medicaid. He’s extremely unpopular in the state and that makes him a useful foil. But I wonder if she wouldn’t prefer to be able to say that her opponent wants to take insurance away from hundreds of thousands of residents. Fight him to a draw on Obamacare, and let all the other issues dominate the campaign.

Kentucky did unusually well. It had a high uninsurance rate to begin with, and seems to have done a better job isolating that population than other states. Seventy five percent will be hard for any state to match. But Alaska, Lousiana and North Carolina actually have higher uninsurance rates than Kentucky did. And though Obamacare most likely reduced those rates somewhat, those races would be cast in different light if the effect had been several times as large.

Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...