In February, Republican Gov. Rick Scott announced his intention to accept Obamacare’s optional Medicaid expansion in Florida.
Since then, the governor has taken a lot of heat: heat from conservatives accusing him of betraying conservative principals; as well as heat from Democrats saying he didn’t go far enough. (RELATED: Charles Krauthammer vs. Mark Levin: Is Mr. Scott embracing Obamacare honorable or dishonorable?)
But for Mr. Scott — a successful businessman who entered politics in 2009 to oppose Obamacare — the move was purely political.
See, the governor is facing a tough electoral challenge from former Gov. Charlie Crist in 2014. And despite having quit the GOP after he was defeated in a Senate primary by Marco Rubio, and despite having joined the Democratic Party only after he was defeated as an independent in general election, Mr. Crist is a formidable opponent: Mr. Scott’s approval rating is among the lowest in the country, and the two are locked in a tight race.
We’ll lay it out in a very plausible hypothetical. Imagine if Mr. Scott flew around the Sunshine State telling voters that Medicaid is broken and needs reform; that expanding the rolls and adding dependents to a broken system doesn’t make sense; and that when the federal cash starts to run out in three years, Florida will be stuck with the massive bill. Now imagine if Mr. Crist was able to fly around the same state screeching about how the governor had rejected million of dollars its citizens had already paid in taxes — and denied benefits to over a million low-income Floridians — because he was a slave to the tea party.
Who here thinks that Mr. Scott would win that sound-byte skirmish?
And in as tight a fight as Mr. Scott is in, a skirmish like that could decide the war. And if the liberals win that war, Medicaid is just the beginning: If Mr. Scott is defeated, conservatives will lose a champion of nearly every other issue dear to them.
In Florida and across the country, progressives are going after guns; toting tax hikes; splurging in spending; abetting abortion; ratcheting up regulations; and resisting reforms to state pension systems and public education. On every one of those fronts, Gov. Scott has successfully opposed them.
On guns, Mr. Scott signed legislation protecting gun owners from foolish prosecution, and signed — and defended — legislation protecting their privacy. And while others scurried for cover in the wake of the shooting-death of Trayvon Martin, Mr. Scott stood down national liberal pressure to reform self-defense laws, creating a committee that found little wrong with Florida’s Stand Your Ground legislation.
On abortion, Mr. Scott signed laws cutting off state funding for abortions, tightening restrictions on underage women trying to bypass parental notifications, and requiring abortion clinics to offer ultrasounds.
On regulation, Mr. Scott’s administration has eliminated some 2,300 burdensome rules.
On state pension reform, Mr. Scott fought to require state employees to contribute to their pension plans, and won the fight when the Florida Supreme Court ruled that this modest reform was not a violation of workers’ rights.
On public education reform, Mr. Scott signed laws that eliminated tenure for new teachers, and instituted merit pay based in part on student performance. The governor also signed an opportunity scholarship law making it easier for students to transfer from failing schools. And although the average teacher’s salary saw a 3 percent cut through pension contributions, in January Mr. Scott called on state legislators to raise teachers’ salaries by $2,500 a year.
Mr. Scott has been a solidly conservative governor, championing a solidly conservative agenda. The suggestion that he should face a primary challenge from the right — an unlikely, but whispered, scenario — is pure folly, and a folly that could well lead to his defeat and the reversal of his many reforms.
Bowing to Obamacare is a serious sin among small-government advocates. But anyone saying that Mr. Scott should have made his last stand on Medicaid Hill because it’s just that important should remember this: The Republicans in the legislature are able to sink the expansion, and Republican Speaker of the House Will Weatherford has made it clear that the House GOP will oppose the measure, though they are exploring other options for expanding health-care access among the poor.
The thing about conservative laws is that so many of them — even those enshrined in the Constitution — can be seemingly swept aside by big government. Meanwhile, progressive programs embroil armies of bureaucrats, lobbyists and dependents to protect them and to expand them.
Largely because of this, with very few exceptions, small-government advocates have been on defense since President Woodrow Wilson. But today, even while the national GOP lies wounded, conservative governors and legislatures across the country are actively pushing reforms that have real staying power. In states like Michigan, Alabama, Wisconsin, New Jersey and Florida, lawmakers are taking big risks to begin to actually roll government, corruption and bureaucracy back.
No leader is perfect, and the right is correct to hold politicians accountable. But conservatives cannot afford to forget that these battles were hard fought, and can be reversed if they fall prey before they have proven their merit to the public. A pillar of the future GOP is its strong governors. Republicans would do well to stand behind them.