Inslee risks historic misstep with emphasis on federal health care

Voters judge candidates for governor on the basis of how well they can manage the state's business. Yet, Jay Inslee's campaign keeps going after Rob McKenna over a complex federal issue.

Crosscut archive image.

Rep. Jay Inslee is interviewed on KCTS 9 by Enrique Cerna.

Voters judge candidates for governor on the basis of how well they can manage the state's business. Yet, Jay Inslee's campaign keeps going after Rob McKenna over a complex federal issue.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee seems determined to rise or fall with an issue, Obamacare, which likely will be of only marginal importance to Washington voters when they cast their votes for governor this November.

In this regard, he is following in the footsteps of national candidates who pursued strategies and took campaign missteps that they later came to regret.  It is still early in the 2012 campaign year, however, and Inslee has time to make a course correction.

A long Seattle Times front-page story this past Sunday (March 25), by Jim Brunner, gave the Inslee campaign's rationale for the federal health legislation emphasis.

The reasoning apparently goes that Attorney General Rob McKenna, Inslee's Republican opponent. has filed suit with other state AGs to strike down the entire Obama health-care law but that, at the same time, McKenna has expressed approval for some of its provisions. Therefore, McKenna should be seen as both wrong (in opposing Obamacare) and a hypocrite (in liking some of it).

Inslee, by contrast, likes the federal Affordable Care Act  so much that he is stressing it over such homely state-level issues as economic growth, jobs, taxes, public education, transportation, and environmental stewardship —issues where voters see their governor as making a critical difference.  (Moreover there is an implication to be left with voters that, because of his Obamacare postures, McKenna must somehow be a Santorum-like GOP nut job).

In a related event, a 24-year-old Bremerton breast-cancer survivor did an Olympia photo-op/appearance Monday to blast McKenna for his opposition to Obamacare. She said the health law had saved her life. Similar such events can be anticipated.

More on this below. But, first, some comparable national-level candidate missteps in modern times, which seem to occur almost every four years.

  • Vice President Richard Nixon's 1960 blunder in allowing Sen. John Kennedy to pre-empt stronger ground on national-security issues, previously a plus for Republican candidates.  An almost equal blunder, in determing a razor-close race, was Nixon's failure to get a close shave and hire a good makeup man prior to his first televised debate with Kennedy.  (Cynics will say the loss might also have been due to Nixon's failure to cover all Chicago polling places with GOP watchers on election night).
  • Sen. Barry Goldwater's 1964 pledges to threaten use of nuclear weapons, end Social Security, and "saw the eastern seabaord off the United States" if elected. These enabled the Johnson-Humphrey campaign to paint Goldwater as a dangerous kook outside the American mainstream, win a landslide victory, and enjoy a huge congressional majority that  promptly enacted a Great Society agenda, which otherwise could not have passed.
  • Sen. George McGovern's unprecedented dumping of Sen. Tom Eagleton as his 1972 vice-presidential running mate on the basis that Eagleton had undergone previously undisclosed electric shock treatment for depression. McGovern's losing margin was deepened by his inability during the campaign to address President Nixon's weak economic-policy performance. As an anti-war candidate, he was unable to move beyond war-peace issues where Nixon enjoyed far greater public confidence.
  • President Gerald Ford's unaccountable 1976 lapse, in a televised debate with Gov. Jimmy Carter, in asserting that the Soviet Union did not dominate the countries of eastern Europe. This neutralized Ford's principal campaign argument that Carter was unacquainted with such issues.
  • Vice President Walter Mondale's public confirmation, in his 1984 nomination-acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, that he would raise taxes if elected. This contributed to a landslide for President Ronald Reagan comparable to LBJ's and Nixon's 1964 and 1972 victories, respectively.
  • Sen. Gary Hart's 1988 challenge to reporters to "follow me and see if you can find any evidence" of his alleged womanizing.  They did and they did, leading to his abrupt withdrawal from the Democratic presidential nominating campaign.  He had been the frontrunner up to that point.
  • Gov. Mike Dukakis' staged photo event in 1988 in which he appeared, elf-like, in the turret of a U.S. Army tank.  The event was intended to underscore his national security credentials but contributed to the evaporation of his 18-point lead in the polls over Vice President Bush as the campaign season began.
  • President Bush's 1992 constant glancing at his watch, during a televised debate with Gov. Bill Clinton, which made voters think, "Is this guy bored or what?"  It ratified the Democratic slogan that it was time for Bush to leave.  Bush also failed to use the presidency, as most incumbents do, to stimulate the economy in an election year.  Neither tax cuts nor spending inreases were employed to blunt a recession which ended just before election day.
  • Sen. John Kerry's celebrated 2004 windsurfing photo, intended to show his vigorous love of outdoor sport but which emphasized his class differences from those of ordinary voters who bowled or played weekend softball.  His famous "I was for it before I was against it" statement on his Iraq war vote also helped him lose narrowly in November. Another Kerry quote from that campaign: "Who among us does not love NASCAR?"  Tennis anyone?
  • Sen. Hillary Clinton's 2008 failure to contest Sen. Barack Obama in states which chose their Democratic delegates by caucus or convention while she won victories in major primary states.  That omission gave Obama the presidential nomination in a close race.
  • Sen. John McCain's double glitches in the 2008 general-election race: His choice of an unprepared Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate and the suspension of his campaign at the outset of the national financial crisis to fly back to Washington, D.C., where he embarrassingly played no role whatever in debating or structuring a policy to address the crisis.

Inslee, in choosing federal health legislation as his centerpiece issue, has made a strange choice. The legislation, when initially passed, had 60 percent public opposition. Now, two years later,  the most recent survey shows it still receiving 56 percent public opposition.

In blue-state Washington, sentiment is probably 50-50 or perhaps slightly in favor.

The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments in the case brought by McKenna and others. The issues are difficult and a ruling likely will come no sooner than June. A confirming ruling might benefit Inslee marginally. A contrary ruling could hurt him. Why on earth would he leave his campaign's fate so dependent on an uncertain court decision?

Gubernatorial candidates normally do and say things intended to underscore their executive capacities. These are unrelated to a congressman's votes. State-level voters make their judgments about governors on the basis of their feelings about the candidates' prospective management of state-level issues.

Health care, of course, is a concern of all families in the state. But, overall, how will the two gubernatorial candidates' positions on Obamacare be deciding factors in their votes for that office?

Answer this brief survey for yourself. Which of the following issues do I consider most important to my 2012 choice as Washington's governor?

  • The state of the state's economy
  • Job creation
  • Taxes
  • Public education
  • Transportation
  • Environmental stewardship
  • Federal health-care legislation

You catch my drift.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of