McConnell's Obamacare Gaffe Deserves Its Own Category

Senate majority leader blunders as he tries to convince voters that Kentucky's version of Obamacare isn't Obamacare.
Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

I’ve mentioned Senator Mitch McConnell’s gaffe in passing, but it deserves its own item. I'm referring to the Senate minority leader’s attempt to find a way to reconcile the unpopularity of Obamacare, the absolute rejection of his party of anything even hinting at a compromise, and the strong popularity of the incarnation of the Affordable Care Act in his home state of Kentucky. His approach to squaring the circle: flat-out denial that his state's exchange, Kynect, has anything to do with Obamacare.

Sure, I’ve predicted that Obamacare would remain unpopular even as the ACA, as implemented, would be popular enough that it couldn’t be repealed. Last year, I urged everyone to get ready for the slogan, "keep your Obamacare away from my Affordable Care Act!" except that people wouldn’t refer to the stuff they liked as the Affordable Care Act.

But even I wasn’t cynical enough to imagine that a leading Republican would actively attempt to promote the fiction that the new health care programs people liked had nothing to do with Obamacare. As Kevin Drum says, “Politicians tell whoppers all the time, but usually they do it cleverly enough that they can somehow defend themselves.”

It’s fair to call this a gaffe, given that McConnell is still facing tough questions from the press several days after the original statement. It is, in fact, a rare kind of gaffe that we don’t have a name for. It’s not a Kinsley Gaffe, in which a politician accidentally tells the truth. However, I think it’s a close relative to the time George H.W. Bush blurted out, “Message: I care.” Bush was telling voters what they were supposed to be taking away from listening to him, rather than trying to convince them that he did, in fact, care. McConnell wants to reinforce voter confusion about Obamacare and Kynect, but instead of creating an impression, he just said it outright.

I don’t think McConnell’s gaffe really creates problems that he can’t handle. The problem already existed. In part, it’s created by a Republican Party that demands absolute loyalty to an unpopular position of wanting a flat-out repeal of the ACA, without being able to come up with an acceptable replacement. The problem also is created by voters who, in Kentucky at least, love their new health plan but hate Obamacare. It’s no wonder that politicians from both parties find that situation difficult to handle.

Not many politicians have the chutzpah to simply try to lie their way through the contradictions. And there probably is the risk that McConnell’s answer might result in press coverage that pushes more people to realize that Kynect and the ACA are one and the same, and makes them decide they can live with Obamacare after all. Most likely, however, it’s just one of the potholes that candidates from both parties step into as they try to navigate an unusually weird road.

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