Mike Huckabee, the Fox News host and wannabe presidential contender, was governor of my home state, Arkansas, until 2007. While he was certainly conservative in that post, he also believed that the government could actually use its tools to care for people. In the 2008 presidential campaign, he broke party rank and said he supported programs that would allow children of undocumented immigrants to receive college scholarships.
“With all due respect,” he said during a debate to his colleagues who opposed the idea, “We’re a better country than that.” This ever-so-slight heart-bleed for immigrant children branded him a party apostate, and he began to change course. Now he earns millions spouting venom on Fox News about immigrants, women, gays and lesbians, and anyone else. The governor with at least a tiny sliver of a heart is gone.
The same is true of the state from which we both came. This week, Arkansas went fully red like the rest of the South. It had been a last holdout state in old Dixie that still elected some Democrats to its top offices. After Obama’s election, though, those Democrats started falling. The cascade peaked this midterm election with the loss of the governor’s seat to Republican Asa Hutchinson and the loss of a favorite son’s Senate seat. Now-lame-duck Senator Mark Pryor’s dad was a beloved governor and senator, and a few years ago the son would have been considered a lock for whatever political office he wanted in the state. The GOP also enhanced its hold on the statehouse, which the party took over two years ago.
The issue, or one of the big ones, was Obamacare. Outgoing Democratic Governor Mike Beebe compromised with the state’s Republicans on the controversial health care law when it passed and devised a unique plan, called the “private option,” one that many had hoped to replicate in other reluctant red states. Instead of expanding Medicaid, the federal program that insures the poor, the state would foot the bill for its low-income residents to enter the private insurance market.
It has so far insured more than 200,000 people who had never been insured before, but it has to be renewed next year. Hutchinson, the incoming governor, has said he needs time to decide what his position is on the plan. Perhaps more significant is that Republicans won all four races for the state senate, increasing their lead in that chamber by two, and they’ve all come out against renewal. And unlike the rest of the country, turnout there was actually up this midterm election, to 47.6 percent, which means the newly elected officials can more safely claim a mandate than states where the turnout was much lower. A nay vote on the private option in the state legislature could force the new governor’s hand even if he does decide he backs the existing program.
So government giveth, and government taketh away. Republicans who campaigned against the state’s health plan said the state couldn’t afford it, but the federal government is fully funding it until 2017. In the near term, the state will only be on the hook for 10 percent of its costs by 2020. In general, like most states with low median incomes, Arkansas gets more money in federal spending than it gives away in federal tax dollars.
Don’t try to tell that to my fellow Arkansans, though. I’ve never been able to convince them that there aren’t freeloaders in faraway cities they’ve never visited taking their money. Yet if they really cared about nefarious outside forces meddling with the wellbeing of their state, they would have been more suspicious of the campaigns run on behalf of Republicans this year, which were funded by $39.9 million in outside money. This outside, dark money was used to convince the state’s residents that the plans their own elected officials had devised to solve their problems, plans that were working well, were actually bad.
What does it mean for the people of the state? Arkansas has continually ranked as one of the least healthy states in the country, and has had one of the worst health care systems. Arkansans can expect to die at a younger age than their counterparts in wealthy, healthy states like Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Yet, Arkansas had been marginally healthier than the states surrounding it. All of the poor states in the mid-South show up at the bottom of all the good lists and the top of all the bad ones, but my little state had always done at least a little bit better than Mississippi, Alabama, and sometimes Louisiana.
Why? Because it had a government that cared about its people. Now I’m afraid that’s going by the wayside. Which means the state has now pulled what I like to call a Full Huckabee. Once, Arkansans believed compassion and good citizenship had roles in government. Now, their state politics, like Huckabee’s career, have been taken over by concerns over money, power, and special interests. And as usual, it’s at the expense of its neediest citizens.