Our U.S. senators, relieved on the sideline
I’d never asked in advance for permission to speak on the phone with a press secretary for an Arkansas politician, much less been turned down.
But these are different days and there’s a first time for everything. The home-state press, like the home state overall, matters less now that politics is all about polarized allegiance to party and nationalized issues.
That little sign David Pryor kept on his Senate desk saying “Arkansas comes first” is as shattered as a Ten Commandments monument.
U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton’s office never responds to me. But until lately I’d maintained the cordiality nearly everyone feels with U.S. Sen. John Boozman and his people.
What’s different lately is that Boozman, timid and low-visibility by nature, got caught in a vortex on repealing and replacing Obamacare.
He wants to repeal and replace because … well, that’s what conservatives want to do. But both bills to accomplish repeal and replace that were thrust on Boozman by his puppeteer, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, presumed to cut Medicaid expansion funding in a way that drew opposition—to that provision, not Obamacare repeal and replace altogether—from Boozman’s friend back home, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
Boozman found himself torn between the general essence of repeal-and-replace conservatism and attending to the needs of his state as framed by a governor he has always liked and admired. And he was torn in the context of McConnell’s needing 50 votes to pass Obamacare repeal with Vice President Mike Pence’s tie-breaking vote, and having already lost, for sure, two of the 52 Republican senators: Susan Collins of Maine among moderates and Rand Paul of Kentucky among the zanier right-wingers.
Never one for stepping out boldly or otherwise on policy, Boozman hid from a columnist who wanted to ask him how he felt in his own mind and by his own initiative about this bill and the issue of Medicaid expansion in his home state.
And then, on Monday night, two more Republican senators—Jerry Moran of Kansas and Mike Lee of Utah—revealed their opposition, forcing McConnell to pull down his bill and lifting Boozman unharmed from the vortex.
Boozman’s cowering was rewarded. He—and Cotton—were spared choosing between repealing and replacing and gutting their state.
Now we’ll never know, which probably was their tactic all along. Other senators overtly represented their states in the field of play. Our guys sat in the press box and watched the scoreboard.
Earlier Monday, before the fatal blow, I’d sent an email to Boozman’s press secretary, Patrick Creamer, asking if he would accept my phone call to his office for a live voice-to-voice conversation on the health-care bill. The staffer replied no.
To be precise: He said the office had put out a statement last week and that he had no updates beyond that.
In other words, he’d be washing his hair when I called.
I replied that, back in the day, a columnist might actually engage a politician or his press aide in live human interaction and take a shot at fresh inquiries on an issue that could inform constituents, voters, readers, people like that who once factored into such equations.
I didn’t get any response on that. After all, it wasn’t a question, but an old geezer’s rambling lamentation about yesteryear.
But here’s the deal: Boozman—and Cotton too—weren’t simply stonewalling me. They were stonewalling you. They were stonewalling Arkansas. They were stonewalling their governor. They were stonewalling the Arkansas Hospital Association, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, UAMS, home-state medical providers generally and home-state poor folks especially.
Here was Boozman’s last-operative statement before Monday night’s collapse: He was encouraged that everybody in the Republican caucus was “trying to get to 50.”
Got that? He professed to be emphasizing getting to a place to pass the bill. He did not profess to give a hoot about trying to change the Medicaid funding for the good of his state before he votes for it, though he may actually have been trying that, even as he was afraid to say so.
On this most important issue to their state and nation, our U.S. senators behaved timidly when the opportunity was ripe for them to behave boldly.
If McConnell had to get 50 votes, meaning he couldn’t spare either Boozman or Cotton, then both were in a position to stand up for their state, its governor, its hospitals and its abundance of working poor people.
They, not Moran and Lee, could have been the ones to pull the plug.
But Boozman doesn’t pull plugs. He just sits in the dark when someone else does.
Boozman’s stated priority was to “get to 50,” not to make “50” come to him and his state.
Cotton’s priority is clearer. It’s to keep this health care inconvenience from getting in the way of a high profile elsewhere in service to his Clintonesque ambition for the presidency.
While he was declining to take a public position on his state’s health care situation, his office was sending a half-dozen news releases a day about his speaking to national groups on defense issues. And he was going on the radio with conservative admirer Hugh Hewitt, who didn’t care any more about Arkansas than Cotton does.
With six electoral votes Cotton can take for granted when the time comes, Arkansas shouldn’t count on a lot of championing from him.
Will Boozman and Cotton now vote for or against McConnell’s tactic of a bill to repeal Obamacare at a future sunsetted date and get it replaced somehow by something by then? At this point, who knows? And who much cares?
They’re not factors in this debate. Senators from other states doing real work in behalf of those states—they’ll decide that.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was inducted into the Arkansas Writers’ Hall of Fame in 2014. Email him at jbrummett@ arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.