WASHINGTON — For congressional Democrats worried about the political toll Obamacare might take on their reelection chances next fall, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear delivered a surprising message Thursday.
"You know what Democrats ought to run on next November?" the two-term Democrat said. "The idea that we want every American to have affordable healthcare."
Beshear visited Capitol Hill on Thursday, taking a victory lap of sorts after gaining national attention for the success of his state's implementation of the healthcare law amid ongoing problems at the federal level and in many other states. Rather than run away from the issue, Beshear told Democrats to embrace it.
Beshear's private visit with House Democrats comes as President Obama embarks on a renewed public push to promote the benefits of his signature law.
Though administration officials have been frequently grilled on Capitol Hill over website glitches and the program's rocky rollout, Beshear was greeted with two standing ovations and unusual deference from Democratic leaders.
At a news conference with the House Democratic leadership, Beshear was the only one to speak. When he offered Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi the chance to make remarks, she instead opened the floor for reporters' questions, all directed at Beshear. The San Francisco Democrat beamed behind Beshear as he shared Kentucky's experience with the healthcare law — a success, he said, despite a hostile political climate and an "avalanche of misinformation" put out by the law's critics.
"He was treated a lot more hospitably than the administration," Rep. John Yarmuth, the lone Democrat in the Kentucky delegation, said in an interview. "He was treated like a rock star."
Kentucky has emerged as a popular — if unlikely — showcase for the promise of the Affordable Care Act, with the understated Beshear, 69, its somewhat reluctant public face. Kentucky's story is particularly compelling as a conservative state where just one of the congressional delegation's eight members is a Democrat. The state Legislature is divided, with Democrats controlling the House and Republicans the Senate.
Both Kentucky's senators are outspoken opponents of the healthcare law: Republican Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, and tea party favorite Sen. Rand Paul.
"Kentucky is not the center of Democratic politics in America," Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) noted.
So Beshear's against-the-odds endorsement makes him a valuable pitchman. "We showed that the system can work and will work," Beshear said.
Democratic leaders hope his message will resonate with rank-and-file members — particularly those facing tough 2014 reelection challenges. Last month, 39 frustrated Democrats voted against the administration to support a Republican bill that would allow insurers to continue selling individual policies that do not meet new federal standards.
In a 15-minute presentation, Beshear made what Pelosi said was not only an economic case for the law, but a moral argument. "It's not about websites or process, it's about people," he said, according to one participant in the meeting.
"My main message to the House caucus today was a message that's tough for folks to listen to when you have elections coming up, but it's simply this: Be patient," Beshear told reporters. "Take a deep breath. Because I'll guarantee you that by next November, this issue is going to look a lot different than it looks up here on the Hill right now."