Political Report, Wayne Greene: Fallin faces tough political decision on Medicaid
BY WAYNE GREENE World Senior Writer
Sunday, August 05, 2012
8/05/12 at 4:33 AM
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The debate over whether the state should accept federal funding for a big expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act brings to mind one of the great turning points in Oklahoma political history.
In 1930, mired in the Great Depression, Oklahomans elected the enigmatic William "Alfalfa Bill" Murray as governor.
Murray was a lot like Oklahoma at the time: ornery, countrified and politically volatile.
He had been one of the dominant political figures in the state's constitutional convention, got himself elected the first speaker of the House of Representatives and served briefly in Congress before political reversals sent him into a self-imposed exile in South America.
The Great Depression reinvigorated his odd brand of populism and sent him to the governor's mansion, where he quickly gained a national reputation of sorts - like the eccentric uncle living in the neighbor's attic that everyone liked to talk about.
He threatened to go to war with Texas over a toll bridge, declared martial law 34 times and is reputed to have left several bullet holes in the ceiling of the governor's office.
He got a lot of gee-whiz ink from the national media, which he mistook for political momentum. Thus began an ill-fated 1932 presidential campaign with the forgettable motto of "bread, butter, bacon and beans."
It turns out that while folks were happy to laugh at Oklahoma's eccentric uncle, no one really wanted him in charge of the neighborhood. Murray got whipped by another governor, Franklin Roosevelt.
Driven by ideological distrust of big government and no small dose of jealously for FDR, Murray did everything he could to frustrate the introduction of the New Deal in Oklahoma.
He refused to accept some programs that were supposed to run through the state, blocked local governments from access to other flow-though programs and polluted others with patronage cronies.
As a result, the bitterest years of the Depression were even more bitter in Oklahoma. Residents by the thousands lit out for the dusty western horizon.
In 1934, Murray was replaced by E.W. Marland. His simple political motto - "Bring the New Deal to Oklahoma" - blew away the opposition, including Murray's hand-picked successor, like so much Dust Bowl flotsam.
The Affordable Care Act debate brings the Murray-Marland transition to mind, but I wouldn't make too much of it.
In a recent news conference, Eric Kingson, co-founder of Social Security Works, took a similar comparison pretty far, saying resistance to Medicaid expansion reminds him of politicians who fought the New Deal programs such as Social Security and paid for it with voters.
"These systems work. They provide value to the American public. They enhance our lives," he said. "What we're seeing with the states that are being recalcitrant on implementing the (Affordable Care Act) is they simply want to destroy it, destroy the ACA program, to do it, I would argue, for political reasons.
"The programs are critically important, and I think that those states will pay a price politically, their members of the Legislature and their governors, will pay a price when they (the people) see what they're turning away."
But historical comparisons can be odious. Oklahomans are still ornery and politically volatile, but things are different than they were in 1934.
Oklahoma's unemployment rate is 4.7 percent. People aren't streaming out of the state in Model T Fords anymore. Most Oklahomans - especially among those who vote - feel pretty sure about the social safety net already in place, and they fret a good deal more about taxes and the deficit.
It is at least as easy to imagine a scenario in which Gov. Mary Fallin pays a political price for accepting the Medicaid money as it is to imagine Kingson's plot line.
Frankly, it's a classic hard choice - anger low-income Oklahomans who want health care and hospitals that need the Medicaid money or run the risk of igniting a prairie-fire tea party revolt against her re-election campaign - and one that she has sidestepped for now.
Fallin isn't the neighborhood eccentric. She isn't shooting up the state Capitol building or threatening to invade the Lone Star State, but how she nuances the Medicaid challenge may determine how much time she gets to stay in the attic anyway.
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Original Print Headline: Medicaid expansion debate brings 1930s to mind
Wayne Greene 918-581-8308