Why Republican Joseph Cao Voted 'Aye' on Health Care

Evaluating his liberal district, Obama's lobbying, and the intricacies of Vietnamese-American politics

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Congressman Joseph Cao of Louisiana was the lone Republican to vote for Saturday's health care reform legislation, which passed by a slim margin. Cao, the first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress, comes from a liberal district he won after his Democrat opponent succumbed to scandal. Why did Cao vote "aye" on the legislation, when every other Republican rejected it? Speculation has focused on the specifics of his district (he is up for re-election next year), his relationship with the White House, and the intricacies of Vietnamese-American politics.

  • Needed to Win Re-Election  Steve Benen thinks the vote makes sense given Cao's liberal district. "Rumor has it that Cao is severely unpopular in conservative circles right now, but the context of his particular predicament matters. Cao barely won his election in a district that President Obama won with 75% support. Realistically, the only reason Cao was successful was that the Democratic incumbent was under criminal indictment, was on video accepting bribes, and had cash found in his freezer when FBI agents raided his home. Running for re-election next year, after voting against President Obama's health care reform package, would have proven exceedingly difficult. Cao's voting record makes him the single most moderate House GOP member."
  • Changing Vietnamese-American Politics  The Economist's Democracy in America explains. "Vietnamese-Americans are one of the few immigrant demographics among whom Republicans do very well, because of their legacy of anti-communism." But this is changing, in part because they are usually a minority proportion of Congressional districts. So Vietnamese-American politicians must appeal to other minority groups -- typically Latino or African-American -- for a chance at political viability. Cao, the first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress, could signify this new trend. "Any Vietnamese-American candidate who wants to win an election is going to have to make himself viable to the other minority populations who inhabit heavily Vietnamese-American districts. [...] But the Republican party has no room for any policy compromises that might play well to those voters."
  • 'Bought Off' By Obama  Huffington Post's Michael J.W. Stickings insists Cao voted yes "because President Obama basically bought him off" by promising to address problems in Cao's district. Stickings writes, "But other states face 'critical health care issues.' Why shouldn't they get similar presidential attention? Because Cao was the one Republican who could be bought off? The thing is, the Democrats didn't even need Cao's vote for passage."
  • A Symbolic Vote  The Hill's Molly K. Hooper reports that Cao waited to cast his vote until the moment when it no longer mattered how he voted. "Once the tally board lit up 218-213, however, Cao was free to put his congressional voting card in electronic key slot and cast an 'aye' vote for the bill his party has dubbed 'Pelosi’s healthcare bill.' He did it quickly, and quietly, while the rest of the chamber was applauding for having cleared the vote threshold needed for passage, the vulnerable Republican was recorded as voting for the sweeping $1.2 trillion measure."
  • Surprise to GOP Leadership  Think Progress's Igor Volsky suggests Republican leaders didn't foresee Cao's vote. "At the 'House Call' tea party protest on Capitol Hill this week, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) pledged to the right-wing activists: 'Be assured not one Republican will vote for this bill.' Cao's vote must have surprised Cantor. Cao has previously been touted by House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) once as 'the future' of the GOP. The White House had reportedly 'been in constant contact' with him prior to the vote. 'Rahm is going all in to get him,' one aide told Roll Call, referring to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.