James Gill: Cassidy caught on health-care issue

The election is more than a year away, but the party is already working feverishly to win Mary Landrieu a fourth term in the U.S. Senate.

And that’s just the GOP. Wait till the Democrats get cracking.

Republicans, as they do every six years, pronounce Landrieu vulnerable, an anomaly in a red state. Their other sexennial routine is to run a flawed candidate against her. Secretly, they must love her. They are out to keep her safe this time by rallying behind U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, who will be portrayed throughout the campaign as a traitor to his own signature issue.

Cassidy won’t find it so easy from now on to attack Landrieu for her Obamacare vote, because a devastating comeback is available to her. All she has to do is start reading from a bill he authored when he was a state senator in 2007. It called for the “implementation of a variety or combination of experience-based entitlements, subsidies and health insurance innovations, public or private, or both, designed to provide health insurance coverage to each citizen of this state.”

The words are music to Democratic ears. Here is Cassidy advocating measures that were to be incorporated in President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, denounced by all true Republicans as a socialist plot. Yet Cassidy now hopes to win a Senate seat by joining the Republican herd screaming for repeal.

Cassidy’s proposal amounted to Obamacare lite, and did not include an individual mandate for buying health insurance, which would indeed have been tied up in court for years anyway. But the compulsory elements of Obamacare were what stuck in the Republican craw, and Cassidy will no doubt be stressing the difference between his voluntary system and government diktat.

That will make for stimulating ideological debate, but it may get lost in the hurly burly of the campaign. That Cassidy shared Obama’s enthusiasm for a government role in universal health care may matter more than their differing notions of how to achieve it.

That enthusiasm was certainly not shared by Cassidy’s colleagues in the state Senate. His bill was stillborn.

Voters must wonder about his smarts if Cassidy did not expect Democrats to pounce on the apparent shift in his principles. You run for high office, and opposition researchers will scour your record. The opportunity to tag Cassidy as a hypocrite was not going to be neglected.

Cassidy could have done much to defuse the issue by raising it before forces beyond his control put him on the defensive. Had he ’fessed up about the 2007 bill, he could have drawn the distinction between mandatory Obamacare and optional Cassidycare, and wrong-footed the opposition from the start. Now, his response is to lambaste Landrieu yet again for supporting Obamacare, while doing nothing to counter the impression that a guilty secret has been uncovered.

It was as an advocate of a government “health-care exchange” that Cassidy won his seat in the state Legislature. He had some claim to know what he was talking about, because he is a physician. Like Mitt Romney in Massachusetts, he could claim to have been ahead of the game, but Republican support for health-care reform evaporated when Obama embraced it.

Although the Cassidycare bill did not even rate a committee vote in 2007 session, its 22 pages of dense detail are there for all to see on the legislative website. When it comes to the assault on Obamacare, Cassidy, the Democrats will keep reminding voters, doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Perhaps they should call him “Hopalong.”

Now that his earlier support for much of Obamacare’s rationale has come to light, Cassidy can hardly rejoin the Republican chorus without provoking hoots. But he was already coming across as a humbug anyway, as when he took bows last year at a ribbon-cutting for a school clinic built with Obamacare money.

Nevertheless, he remains so opposed to Obamacare that he, along with 79 other GOP members of Congress, has signed a letter asking House Speaker John Boehner to “defund” its “implementation and enforcement.”

That would appear to mean derailing appropriation bills needed to keep the government in business, but Cassidy has also declared himself opposed to a shutdown. Evidently Cassidy does not want to make his mind up too fast. He did that once before. So far as Landrieu is concerned, a wishy-washy challenger is just what the doctor ordered.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.