Columns » Max Brantley

Health care: We're pro and con

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A new Talk Business/Hendrix College poll sharply illustrates how messaging influences the health care debate.

In Arkansas, a solid 58 percent say opponents should continue to fight implementation of health care reform, despite its validation by the U.S. Supreme Court after its earlier passage by Congress.

The clear message: Obamacare is bad!

At the same time, in the same poll, the opinion among more than 500 Arkansans was about evenly split — 42 for to 46 against — on expanding the Medicaid program in Arkansas, probably the most expensive part of Obamacare.

That message: Obamacare may not be so bad after all!

These contradictory results are not hard to analyze. For a couple of years now, Republicans have been painting the move toward universal health coverage of Americans as socialism at best, sheer evil and the end of our wonderful health care system at worst. (Wonderful if you don't count those who can't access it, our poor results and our high costs.)

It doesn't hurt in Arkansas that the symbol for the message is a black man (suspected by many to be foreign-born and a Muslim). He's reviled in these precincts. The counter-message from Democrats has been almost non-existent. Well, there is poor ol' Jay Bradford, the Arkansas insurance commissioner, who is valiantly trying to put in place a system by which previously uninsured Arkies will be able to get health insurance.

But in Arkansas, the real problem is Obama. And I'll leave it to you to decide why he's such a problem.

Jay Barth notes in analysis of the poll:

"Arkansans' views are in significant contrast to national polling on the issue. Our poll question replicated a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation showing that by a 56 percent to 38 percent margin, Americans were ready for opponents to move on now that the Court had ruled. By a 58 percent to 34 percent margin, Arkansans continue ongoing opposition."

Noted: Arkansas whites polled disproportionately favored continued obstruction.

Arkansas's seeming opposition to better health care is reminiscent of nothing so much as Arkansas's dogged defense of a system of education that was a national disgrace as late as the mid-1970s. There, too, we were poor in service to our people, but somehow perversely proud of it.

The poll results thrill Republican campaign operatives. They plan to make 2012 a rerun of 2010. Every race, from dog catcher on up, will be pitched as a referendum on the black president. If the pitch is successful, a Republican tsunami will ensue.

Then come the consequences. When sick people lose the insurance rights they've just won; when kids are tossed off parents' insurance; when the new health insurance exchanges crumble; when the added cost for seniors' drugs returns; when Medicaid becomes but a shadow program for a tiny slice of the population and kids start losing primary coverage in droves — maybe then Arkansas voters might reconsider just who's wearing the black hat. Is it the black man working for broader health coverage or is it the Arkansas legislators who'd sacrifice the health of hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens to finance tax cuts for millionaires?

A version of this column appeared earlier on the Arkansas Blog.

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