Does Calling Kentucky's Obamacare 'Fine' Disqualify McConnell?

Undebatable: Grimes and McConnell in Kentucky, Warner in Virginia, and Cotton in Arkansas offer wince-worthy moments.

Caption:WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 19: U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks to reporters following the weekly policy lunch of the Republican caucus November 19, 2013 in Washington, DC. McConnell spoke on continued problems with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act during his remarks. (National Journal)

What's more disqualifying? A Democrat who refuses to say whether she voted for President Obama, or a Republican who waffles on Obamacare and essentially calls it "fine"?

That question lingers like spoiled milk the day after a clash of cynicism in Kentucky—Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes versus Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell. Senate campaign debates in Arkansas and Virginia were equally dispiriting to voters growing tired of crass and corrupt politics.

In Kentucky, Grimes inexplicably stuck with her days-long refusal to say if she voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. A strong majority of Kentucky voters disapprove of the president's job performance, and none are stupid enough to think that Grimes voted for GOP candidates.

Yet, she insisted that if she answered the question, it would "compromise a constitutional right" to cast a secret ballot. That's preposterous. While all Americans have a right to a secret ballot, Grimes can't expect Kentucky residents to give her a vote in the Senate if she won't tell them how she voted in 2012.

McConnell attacked Grimes, then proceeded down his own rabbit hole. Once again, he stumbled over the Obamacare issue by erroneously suggesting that Kentucky's version of the reform is a mere website. A half-million Kentucky residents have been insured by Kentucky health care exchange, Kynect.

"The website can continue, but in my view the best interests of the country would be achieved by pulling out Obamacare root and branch," McConnell said.

Pressed repeatedly to say whether he was endorsing the continuation of the state exchange, McConnell said, "Yeah, I think it's fine to have a website."

He can't have it both ways. Uprooting Obamacare upends Kynect. The Kentucky exchange was created with $252 million in federal grants provided through Obamacare. A critical aspect of the Affordable Care Act—and, by extension, the Kentucky plan—is the requirement that Kentucky residents secure health insurance. A full repeal of Obamacare would eliminate the grants, place a burden on Kentucky to finance the exchange (read: higher taxes), and scuttle the mandate.

As Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post wrote in his fact-check column, Kentucky tried insurance reform without a mandate in the 1990s and found it to be a disaster.

"The history of individual state exchanges shows it is not credible for McConnell to suggest that the state exchange would survive without the broad health-care system constructed by the Affordable Care Act, such as an individual mandate and subsidies to buy insurance," Kessler wrote in May.  "Given the popularity of the state exchange, McConnell appears to want to offer out hope it would continue even in the unlikely case the law was actually repealed. That's likely not a tenable position, and we will pay close attention to McConnell's phrasing on this issue in the future. The senator is clearly trying to straddle a political fence; when doing so, it's easy to lose your balance."

McConnell is peddling a distinction with little difference. He's playing with the health of 500,000 Kentuckians. He's misleading conservatives who don't think Obamacare is "fine." He's a hypocrite.

In her ham-handed attempt to duck Obama, Grimes is showing a lack of courage, conviction and political smarts. "I think she disqualified herself," my friend Chuck Todd said. Tough analysis. If running away from Obama is disqualifying, playing both sides of the fence on Obamacare might be worthy of retirement.

Monday was a bad day for all but the most masochistic voters. In Arkansas, an ambitious, underachieving first-term House member reached for the Senate by linking Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor to Obama. "A vote for Mark Pryor is a vote for more of Barack Obama's policies," Tom Cotton said. It was an essentially accurate quote, but Pryor pounced with a charge that cast Cotton as an example of what's wrong with modern politics.

"He hasn't passed anything since he's been in the House," Pryor said. "Even though he was there for one month, and he ran a poll on the Senate race—didn't even know where the bathrooms were, but nonetheless now thinks he's entitled to be in the Senate.... Congressman, you don't have the reputation, ability, or the desire to walk across the aisle to get things done in Washington."

In Virginia, Republican challenger Ed Gillespie attacked Democratic Sen. Mark Warner for discussing the possibility of a federal judgeship for the daughter of a state senator, Phillip P. Puckett. The chat conveniently occurred as Democrats were trying to persuade Puckett to stay in the Senate so their party could retain control of the chamber.

"I would never play politics with recommending judicial appointments," Gillespie said.

Warner replied that he simply called Puckett's son to "brainstorm" potential jobs for the senator's daughter. If he's telling the truth about his motive—and that's a big "if"—the conversation was still outrageously inappropriate. Virginians will decide whether it's disqualifying.