There are some very good reasons Gov. Gary Herbert is taking his sweet time deciding whether or not to accept federal money to expand Medicaid.
I think he’s going to wait until after the final gavel falls on the 2014 Legislature to make his decision. Here’s why.
If he chooses to expand Medicaid, the anti-federal government zealots in the Legislature won’t have much of a forum to attack the decision once the session is over. If he rejects the expansion, there will be outrage from the left – but not enough to do much political damage.
Waiting until after the session minimizes any political blowback Herbert might face from either side. Yes, there’s an election in 2014, but Herbert won’t be on the ballot. The biggest race next year is a potential rematch between Jim Matheson and Mia Love in the 4th Congressional District – hardly a race that will serve as a referendum on Herbert’s decision to expand or not expand Medicaid.
Then there’s Becky Lockhart. The current Speaker of the House is rumored to be gearing up for a run at the governor’s mansion in 2016. If Herbert waits until after the session, it completely takes Lockhart out of the political calculus.
As Speaker, Lockhart would be the only person on Capitol Hill who might have a reason to make Medicaid expansion an issue with some staying power. The media would go running to her for comment since she may be challenging Herbert. Once Utah’s political center of gravity shifts away from the 45-day session, she’s just another voice among many.
But, once the dust clears on the session, there’s not much Lockhart can do. Aside from the occasional special session, Lockhart effectively vacates her bully pulpit on March 14, 2014. Sure she might be back in the game for the 2016 contest, but that’s a long time away, and Utah voters have notoriously short memories (HB 477, anyone?). By that time, unless it’s an unmitigated disaster, Medicaid expansion will not be any sort of albatross she (or anyone else) can hang around Herbert’s neck.
Herbert is not stupid. He knows, no matter what he decides he’s going to catch some flak for it. Since there’s no hard and fast deadline, he can announce the decision when it’s most advantageous to him.
Hypothetically, if he were to announce that Utah was going to opt in to the expansion before or during the session, Republican lawmakers would have time and the ability to punish him for it politically. I could even see Speaker Lockhart egging some of them on in order to boost her political fortunes down the line. The legislature is a megaphone with a battery that lasts 45 days. When that power source runs out, the volume drops considerably.
Waiting puts everything on Herbert’s terms and gives him a level of control you usually don’t find in politics.
Ultimately, I believe Herbert is going to accept Medicaid expansion. If he wasn’t, don’t you think he would have done it by now? The political climate in Utah favors him deciding against it. Most Utahns hate the idea of Obamacare. A rejection would be a slam dunk politically.
There’s a perception among many Utah politicos that Herbert is a poor leader – unable to make bold decisions.
I think it’s becoming more and more clear that Herbert is playing chess while his detractors want to beat him at checkers.
Look at some of his recent decisions. Using state money to open the national parks during the shutdown was unexpected. Nobody saw his selection of Spencer Cox to be the next Lt. Governor coming.
I won’t go so far as to call Herbert a political genius, but he clearly is playing a different game than his opponents.
Vladimir Kramnik, who was the World Chess Champion from 2006 to 2007, said “I am convinced, the way one plays chess always reflects the player's personality. If something defines his character, then it will also define his way of playing.”
The same can be said about Herbert’s politics. Careful and deliberate while maximizing his advantages. Why should we expect anything less with the decision on Medicaid expansion?