Kentucky: John Yarmuth Says Health Care Law Probably Wasn’t Worth Political Cost

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 12, 2012 at 7:12am

Publicly meditating on the past is not a normal activity for vulnerable Members looking to get re-elected. But from his safe Louisville-based district, Kentucky Rep. John Yarmuth (D) has the luxury of mulling about what could have been.

In an interview with Roll Call on Wednesday, the three-term lawmaker was asked whether the Affordable Care Act — which will be a burden to Democrats for the second consecutive cycle — was worth the political cost.

“Oh, politically? Politically?” Yarmuth paused for a moment. “Big picture, politically, it probably wasn’t worth it. Policy-wise, it was worth it because it’s going to move the country dramatically in the right direction,” he said. “Even if it were to fail [at the Supreme Court], it’s going to move the country dramatically in the right direction.”

It was a frank admission from a member of a class of House Democrats swept into power in 2006 but that lost its majority, in a large part because of the law that became known as Obamacare in 2010.

Yarmuth, a strong supporter of the law, mused about the missed opportunities in the deeply contentious yearlong debate over how to reform America’s unwieldy health care system.

“We — collectively, those of us interested in doing comprehensive health care reform — we made a lot of mistakes,” he said.

“Taking single-payer off the table from day one was a big mistake. Even proposing a public option the way it was proposed was a big mistake,” he said. “We just should have said, ‘You can buy private insurance or you can buy into Medicare.’ People would have understood that. It would have been really easy. The public option was too vague. It kind of did sound like government takeover. And the Republicans exploited that very well.”

Yarmuth explained that he spent a huge amount of time expounding the law to constituents. He described being able to change people’s minds with a proper description of the law.

“I spent a year, literally, speaking about health care reform five or six hours every day. Literally. That’s not an exaggeration,” he told Roll Call. “If I could spend a half-hour with a group of people and go through the whole thing and then answer their questions, they walked out of the room with a whole different perspective on it.”

And the messaging fight is one the Congressman hasn’t given up on. In fact, he’s in the midst of a battle (albeit one-sided) with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

In March, McConnell wrote a not-particularly-groundbreaking op-ed in the Louisville Courier-Journal assailing various aspects of the Affordable Care Act with common Republican talking points.

Last week, Yarmuth wrote him a letter assailing what he called the op-ed’s “inaccuracies” and “misrepresentations.”

“At some point somebody just has to stand up and say, ‘Stop this, you’re really being deceitful to my constituents,’” Yarmuth said in the Wednesday interview, referring to McConnell. “And he’s gotten away with so much over the years. There’s a difference between spin, which we all do a little bit of, and then outright deceit, and he crossed the line with this.”

The Congressman said there were 15,000 business in his district that could get a tax credit under the Affordable Care Act, but only 530 have. He attributed the low percentage, in part, to messaging such as that coming from McConnell.

Asked whether he was taking a political risk by directly challenging the man known as the godfather of Kentucky politics, Yarmuth shrugged off the danger. He said he’s known McConnell for 40 years. “I’m a lot more popular in the district then he is, that I know,” Yarmuth said with a laugh.

McConnell’s office had no comment.

Read Yarmuth’s full letter to the Minority Leader here:

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