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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Maybe Ben Nelson Did It

The unexpected victory of Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown in the election to fill the US Senate seat vacated by the death of Ted Kennedy was no doubt caused by many factors, but is commonly attributed in large part to a public uprising in opposition to the health care reform legislation being promoted by the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress.

It is not that Massachusetts voters are opposed to expanding health insurance coverage. Massachusetts has enacted its own universal coverage program, which according to the polls continues to enjoy widespread support among the state’s voters.

I suspect that a combination of factors caused people to be concerned about the proposed health care reform bill. It had grown exceedingly complex, approaching 2000 pages in length, so that a public already distrustful of government couldn’t know what was in it and suspicious minds could imagine the worst. The inability to attract a single Republican vote did nothing to inspire confidence. Cutting back the financing of Medicare wasn’t calculated to elicit support from seniors. Then there was the high cost of the proposals at a time of increasing concern about the large and growing national debt. Proponents of the legislation claimed that it would reduce the deficit, but it is doubtful that many people believed them.

People were probably also turned off by the cynical political horse trading that went on in the quest for votes, a process capped off by Democratic Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska. One element of the Senate’s plan to expand insurance coverage was to enlarge Medicaid. Medicaid is a joint federal-state program with each paying for part of the cost. As the price for his vote, Senator Nelson got a provision in the Senate version that required the federal government to pick up the tab for Nebraska’s share of the enlarged program. So the taxpayers of Massachusetts were going to have the privilege of supporting Medicaid in Nebraska.

It is impossible to know whether that was the tipping point in the Massachusetts election, but it is fun to speculate that it might have been.

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