House Speaker Beth Harwell left Democrats howling and some fellow Republicans scratching their heads with the announcement last week that she has set up a task force to contemplate how to deal with health care coverage for poor Tennesseans.
Of course, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam proposed in late 2014 his idea on how to deal with those folks after more than a year of contemplation and compromising. It was called Insure Tennessee and was summarily shot down last year by the Republican supermajority, with Harwell waffling, refusing to either support or oppose a plan denounced as part of GOP-despised Obamacare by critics and defended by Haslam as an innovative way to expand Medicaid.
The governor, who has created dozens of task forces to study stuff while avoiding a decision on various matters, was on hand at the announcement of Harwell’s “3-Star Healthy Project” to praise participants for taking a “political risk” in being willing to even talk about such things.
Actually, there doesn’t seem to be much political risk here. Harwell waited until after the qualifying deadline for legislative candidates had passed before setting up the task force. She and all four Republican representatives appointed to the panel now have no opposition in GOP primaries. It may be worth noting, though, that all four — and Harwell — do have Democratic opponents waiting in November. Ergo, any political risk they face is from underdog Democrats.
So the task force is arguably more akin to a political insurance policy being taken out just in case something extremely unlikely but conceivable should occur — comparable, say, to the average homeowner thinking about the house getting hit by a tornado. And there has been some stormy political weather lately.
Why, at the Legislative Plaza last week, one could even hear speculation that Harwell herself could be at risk for re-election to her Nashville House seat. In 2014 she won re-election with 14,839 votes to 8,601 for an unknown and underfunded Democrat. Since then, Harwell has been specifically targeted by Insure Tennessee proponents for criticism while polls show that most Tennesseans — even many Republicans — support the governor’s plan. Democrats do so unanimously and will make it a central campaign issue.
The speaker has also endured a fair amount of criticism over her handling of allegations that Rep. Jeremy Durham engaged in sexual harassment. Throw in the possibility that the 2016 Republican presidential nominee will be someone not really popular with all Republicans — Donald Trump, say, or Ted Cruz — and, well, it’s still not likely that Harwell could lose. But Tennessee does have tornados on occasion, political or otherwise.
Democrats’ reaction to the Harwell task force — it’s a “charade,” a political gimmick, they say — was both predictable and understandable. Republican head-scratching, meanwhile, was especially notable over in the Senate. No senators and no Democrats are included in the task force membership.
One Republican senator dubbed the proposal Insure Harwell. A Democrat predicted the resulting recommendations will be known as Harwellcare.
Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, who will chair the “3-Star Healthy Project,” insists this is not a political stunt. The idea, he says, is to come up with a “pilot project” — maybe incorporating some aspects of Insure Tennessee — that could be sold to both federal officials and the supermajority as an experiment, theoretically forming the basis for a long-term solution that could become permanent sometime during the next president’s administration.
That’s an admirable goal, of course, albeit one that seems unlikely to succeed in the present political environment at both the state and federal level, as indicated by the widespread lack of acclaim received with last week’s rollout of the Harwellian experiment. The chances are perhaps about the same as dramatic Democratic gains in this fall’s legislative elections.
Still, if the real goal is to provide a little political insurance coverage, maybe it will help a bit — even if there are some gaping holes there.
After all, some insurance is surely better than none, right? Most of the 280,000 or so Tennesseans who would benefit from Insure Tennessee would surely agree. Even if it’s just Harwellcare.