Politics & Policy

Can Chris Christie Keep Dodging the Medicaid Expansion Bullet?

(Scott Olson/Getty)

It may surprise some conservatives, but Ohio governor John Kasich isn’t the only Republican presidential candidate to expand Medicaid in his state under new Obamacare rules.

“Chris Christie did that, too!? For Pete’s sake,” says John Adams, a former Ohio legislator and a bitter opponent of Kasich’s Medicaid expansion. “No one knows that!”

Relentless conservative opposition to the Medicaid expansion has largely frustrated the presidential aspirations of Kasich, Christie’s chief competitor in the hotly contested race to emerge from New Hampshire as an establishment dark horse. But though Kasich takes unrelenting flak for his decision to institute Obamacare’s expansion of the Great Society entitlement program in Ohio, Christie’s identical choice as governor of New Jersey has faced little national scrutiny. In fact, many conservatives outside of his state aren’t even aware of it.

There are good reasons that’s the case. Kasich used a legislative maneuver that rankled many Republicans to force his expansion through a rebellious statehouse, which left some conservative legislators feeling betrayed. He also suggested that opponents of the program weren’t true Christians — a message that angered anti-Obamacare Republicans in Ohio and nationwide. Christie, by contrast, paints his own Medicaid expansion as a fiscal decision driven by New Jersey’s heavily Democratic legislature, and he refuses to moralize against conservatives who disagree with the move. So far, that’s helped him avoid the wrath of the activists who have pilloried Kasich.

RELATED: Medicaid Expansion Is Proving to Be the Budget Buster We Predicted

But conservatives in New Jersey are still angry with their governor, and will offer him little cover on the issue if he breaks out nationally. That could be a problem, because a breakout appears close at hand: After months of treading water, Christie’s campaign is having a genuine moment in New Hampshire. Most polls of the Granite State now put the New Jersey governor in second or third place — still well behind Donald Trump, but a far cry from last month’s low single digits. The state’s famously moderate Republican electorate may well be attracted to Christie’s reinvigorated national-security pitch, and a good finish in the first-in-the-nation primary would set him up to be competitive going forward.

As long as terrorism and national security remain at the forefront of voters’ minds, Christie’s experience as a post-9/11 U.S. Attorney should play well in law-and-order states such as New Hampshire. But as his success invites greater scrutiny, heresies such as the Medicaid expansion could undermine his ability to compete in states still bitterly hostile to Obamacare, allowing Christie’s Republican rivals to question his commitment to entitlement reform, the central plank in his domestic agenda.

RELATED: There’s No Denying Chris Christie Is a Serious Political Talent

“Christie’s hanging his hat on his ability to reform entitlements,” says national Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “All someone has to say is, ‘Wait a minute, how can we trust you to reform Social Security when you can’t even reform Medicaid?’”

In a bid to incentivize state governors to expand their Medicaid rolls, a provision in Obamacare empowered the federal government to pay for 100 percent of the cost of new, low-income enrollees until the beginning of 2017. After that, states were slated to pick up 10 percent of the cost — a share that many conservatives expected to rise as federal entitlement programs approach insolvency. With that and other caveats in mind, 22 governors — mostly Republicans in southern and midwestern states — declined to participate in the program.

Kasich and Christie both bucked that trend, choosing to take hundreds of millions in federal Medicaid dollars starting in 2013. But the two governors went about their entitlement expansions very differently.

Facing a Republican supermajority deeply opposed to Obamacare and its offshoots, Kasich deliberately worked around the Ohio legislature by taking money directly from the federal government and then going to a Controlling Board for approval to spend it. When it became apparent that the majority of board members from Ohio’s House would still vote against the expansion — giving that body standing to sue the governor —Kasich leaned on Ohio house speaker Bill Batchelder to replace two “no” votes with one “no” and one “yes.”

It was a move that some Ohio conservatives never forgot — or forgave. “When [Kasich] did that, with the Speaker who was complicit and the Senate president who was complicit, that’s when I was done,” says Adams, who was termed out as the state’s House majority whip in 2014. “Conservatives went to bat for Kasich to get him elected. And in his second term, he bailed on the conservative agenda.”

Ohio conservatives also saw political scheming in Kasich’s decision. After he fought a contentious battle with labor unions in his first term, some felt the Medicaid expansion was part of a plan to soften his image and appeal to the middle — both in Ohio and nationally. “He wanted to be that guy that independents and Democrats would come in and vote for [in New Hampshire], and that would propel him into future states,” says Matt Beyer, president of Opportunity Ohio, a conservative think tank.

Political operatives in New Jersey say Christie’s Medicaid expansion was quite different. Neither Democrats nor conservative critics in the state think dirty tricks or electoral politics factored into his decision, which was approved without fuss by the state legislature. Sheila Oliver, New Jersey’s assembly speaker and a Christie opponent, downplays the idea that the governor expanded Medicaid in order to receive reelection endorsements from others in the Democratic party. “I think it was a purely financial decision,” she says, pointing to New Jersey’s massive debt. Several Garden State conservative activists concur, calling Christie’s move a straightforward attempt to compromise with a Democratic legislature and bring federal money to his state.

#share#That doesn’t mean the state’s Obamacare opponents have forgiven their governor. If they don’t seem particularly concerned with Christie’s Medicaid expansion, it’s only because he’s already disappointed them on so many other issues, from judicial appointments to that infamous hug with President Obama after Hurricane Sandy. “It’s another issue where movement conservatives became a little more disillusioned with the governor,” says Mike Proto, the communications director at Americans for Prosperity New Jersey. He adds that New Jersey conservatives, unlike their counterparts in Ohio, never really expected anything else from their governor. “The one thing with Governor Christie is he always tries to find, if he can, some middle ground. And that’s exactly what he did here.”

Kasich’s rationale for expanding Medicaid also accounts for the anger his decision sparked in Ohio and elsewhere. He argued that good Christians had a moral imperative to support government programs providing financial assistance to the less fortunate. “When you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small, but he is going to ask you what you did for the poor,” he said during his campaign to convince Ohio’s Republican legislature on the issue in 2013. “You better have a good answer.”

Kasich has continued to make that argument even as he runs for president. Though he’s paid lip service to the notion that every state must make its own decision on Medicaid expansion, earlier this year he lobbied Republican legislatures in Montana and Tennessee to approve expansions in their states. “I don’t know if you’ve ever read Matthew 25, but I’d recommend it to you, about ‘Do you feed the homeless and do you clothe the poor,’” he told a Montana legislator resisting the expansion in January. Montana’s legislature finally acquiesced to the expansion in April — a “startling turnaround” that some lawmakers attributed to Kasich’s influence.

By taking federal money from the very same system he now calls insolvent to pay off his own state’s debt, Christie risks being labeled a hypocrite.

That kind of meddling hasn’t gone over well with many in Kasich’s party. At a May forum organized by the Koch Brothers in Palm Springs, both Jindal and South Carolina governor Nikki Haley reportedly accused him of “hiding behind Jesus to expand Medicaid.” In August, when Americans for Prosperity held a summit in Columbus, Ohio’s state capital, Kasich wasn’t invited, and some of his harshest critics — including former Texas governor Rick Perry and AFP president Tim Philips — showed up to slam his Medicaid decision.

The Ohio governor has been confronted on the issue during two top-tier GOP debates — once in August, and again in October — and his prickly responses didn’t help his case: He’s still barely breaking 1 percent in national polls, and though he spends most of his time stumping in New Hampshire, poll after poll shows that the more Granite State Republicans see of him, the less they like him.

Christie, by contrast, has stressed that his decision to expand Medicaid in New Jersey was primarily fiscal. “Accepting these federal resources will provide health insurance to tens of thousands of low-income New Jerseyans, help keep our hospitals financially healthy, and actually save money for New Jersey taxpayers,” he said after announcing the move. He later claimed all that federal money would stave off tax increases in a state riddled with public-sector debt. And now that he’s running for president, Christie tries to avoid the issue entirely. He quickly pivoted when Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal tried to corner him about it in November’s undercard debate, and he’s never been asked about it in any of the top-tier debates in which he’s participated. Unlike Kasich, he’s kept his nose out of Medicaid expansion fights in other states.

In New Hampshire, where Christie continues to ride a crest of support in the wake of attacks by Islamic terrorists in Paris and San Bernardino, his Medicaid expansion doesn’t seem to bother many Republican voters. The Granite State expanded its own program under Obamacare, a move that was reasonably popular across party lines. Thomas Rath, a veteran New Hampshire Republican strategist, says entitlement growth “hasn’t really resonated” in the state. Jeb Bradley, New Hampshire’s Senate majority leader and a Christie supporter, says the governor wasn’t asked once about the issue during a December 11 town hall. “Obamacare, as a government takeover of the healthcare system, is a big issue,” says Bradley. “But I think people have separated that, to a certain extent, from Medicaid.”

#related#Still, Christie can’t avoid the subject of his Medicaid expansion forever. If he performs well in New Hampshire and the GOP electorate moves away from its current focus on foreign policy, O’Connell says the Medicaid expansion could be “particularly problematic” for Christie. The New Jersey governor has built his domestic agenda around promises to roll back entitlement spending, producing a detailed plan that would increase the retirement age and cut off Social Security at higher incomes. By taking federal money from the very same system he now calls insolvent to pay off his own state’s debt, he risks being labeled a hypocrite. And his best defense — that he was a Republican governor doing the best he could with a Democratic legislature — may not be good enough for a conservative base tired of compromise.

With violence raging across the Middle East and an unabated terror threat at home, the political focus on national security is likely to last at least through the New Hampshire primaries. But unless Christie’s ready to answer some uncomfortable questions about his commitment to entitlement reform, he’d better hope it lasts a lot longer than that.

— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.

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