On March 21, President Barack Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law - with 22 pens - putting a merciful end to more than a year of political posturing, hot air and endless misinformed rhetoric.
And on the following day, Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna joined nine other Republican state attorneys general in suing the federal government, claiming that the bill, bitterly opposed by Republicans, is an unconstitutional infringement on states' rights.
Let us set aside, for the moment, the preposterousness and hypocrisy of McKenna's lawsuit: the fact that McKenna has argued exactly the opposite legal doctrine in citing federal law to override enforcement of our state's voter-approved medical-marijuana law, or that the bill's insurance "mandate" is actually a tax credit indistinguishable from the home-mortgage tax deduction, or that such provisions have long and consistently been upheld by the courts. Or that the lawsuit's Tentherist rhetoric (a Tea Party movement named after the U.S. Constitution's 10th Amendment, which reserves to the states powers not specified in the Constitution as being federal) is indistinguishable from the discredited secessionist arguments once used by Southern slaveholders. No, let's set aside all that.
What is interesting is what McKenna's lawsuit (and the response to it) portends for the political career of a man widely favored to be our state's next governor in 2012.
A destroyed image
Republicans, of course, have not occupied the state House in Olympia since roughly the time of the mass extinction event in the late Pleistocene era. Since our last Republican governors (actually in the mid- to late-20th century), the state party has trotted out a series of candidates far to the right of the political mainstream of the state - most recently, Ellen Craswell, John Carlson and, twice, Dino Rossi.
Rossi's appeal was (and is - he keeps dropping hints that he might resurface to run against Patty Murray this year, though certain unsavory real estate connections that have surfaced since 2008 make that less likely) predicated on a sort of dog-whistle approach: a candidate who appeared pleasantly centrist (helped by fawning, unchallenging media coverage) but could wink and nod his reactionary bona fides to the base.
McKenna was thought to be a strong potential 2012 candidate because he's a more polished and likeable version of Rossi. Through his career as a Bellevue city official, a Metropolitan King County Council member and now state attorney general, McKenna has been a reliable ally of reactionary business interests like the Building Industry Association of Washington, the state's most active and influential conservative lobby group.
At the same time, he's relatively young, photogenic, smart, friendly and has done a creditable job as attorney general in representing all of his constituents, not just the far right ones - until now.
It took McKenna more than a decade to cultivate that image - and one day to destroy it, by filing a lawsuit with virtually no chance of success against the wishes of the governor, the Legislature, eight of the state's 11 elected congress people and a solid majority of our state's voters, all of whom made their displeasure known.
Gregoire, in particular, blasted McKenna. So did Rep. Jay Inslee, a Democrat who also has his eye on replacing Gregoire in 2012 should she not seek another term. A Facebook group "opting out" of McKenna's lawsuit had 10,000 members by day's end. (It's since doubled that total.)
A "No Reversing Our Benefits" (NoROB) PAC quickly popped up to raise money against any future McKenna campaign. And a lot of ordinary, independent voters who'd previously thought of McKenna as one of the few "good" Republicans silently revised their opinions
A political strategy?
Why? There's only two possible motives for McKenna's move, both of them pretty depressing. Either a bright guy like McKenna actually believes the Republican rhetoric that the health-care reform legislation is the second coming of Hitler, Stalin and Mao all rolled into one, or McKenna is acting with his eye on 2012 and, in our top-two primary, is calculating that the Republican base is more important to his chances of making the general election than cultivating independents. In that more-likely scenario, McKenna's frivolous lawsuit isn't so much buying a dog whistle as buying the kennel - with small, unmarked bills.
The problem with this strategy, of course, is that it's pointless if McKenna can't turn around in the general election and win over the same independents he's just burned.
Now, it's two and a half years to November 2012, so that might not be a bad gamble. We Americans have notoriously short political memories. But this is the sort of gesture people remember - especially older people who tend to be independents and tend to need reforms like banning rescission and pre-existing condition hassles.
They might not remember the specifics of McKenna's lawsuit, but they'll remember that he went to lengths to side with corporations that endanger their health and lives. It's enough to move the unspoken image of McKenna from "good Republican" to "snake-oil Republican."
That conversion is why Rossi did so much worse in 2008 than 2004. And with it, we may just have seen the determining moment in an election that's still 31 months away.
Geov Parrish is cofounder of Eat the State![[In-content Ad]]