Marc Caputo

Marc Caputo: 'Socialism,' Obamacare and fickle Florida voters

In a poor state like Florida, it seemed like a no-brainer for a U.S. Senate candidate to back a plan so that “every man or woman gainfully employed could pay for and get the health insurance they need.”

He lost, his plan bashed as part of “the socialist state.”

Sound like the 2010 fight over Obamacare? Sure.

But this happened 60 years earlier in Florida in the Democratic race between incumbent Claude Pepper and the man who tarred him as a red, George Smathers, the Miami congressman who won the U.S. Senate that year.

“It sure seems like some things never change,” laughed James C. Clark, University of Central Florida history instructor and author of the must-read book “Red Pepper and Gorgeous George: Claude Pepper’s Epic Defeat in the 1950 Democratic Primary.”

“One thing has remained consistent for years about Florida,” Clark said. “People come here hoping to retire from their jobs, retire from their government and retire from paying taxes.”

And, in that regard, anything that has the whiff of more government and more taxes has struggled in Florida and continues to struggle to this day.

So perhaps it’s little surprise that, since its passage in 2010, President Obama’s Affordable Care Act has found little traction in the Sunshine State, where Republican leaders have fought it at every turn.

Florida has a health-insurance problem. The state has the second highest rate of the uninsured in the nation, just below 25 percent. Texas is number one, at just over 25 percent.

So why would Florida, a state with so many uninsured and so many Democrats (who outnumber Republicans by 500,000) twice vote to elect Barack Obama president — only to also vote for Gov. Rick Scott and Sen. Marco Rubio, who want to scrap Obamacare?

The answer isn’t clear. Because it’s about politics.

Politics is ultimately about people deciding the choices they're given. It’s about advertising politicians as products. It’s about the mechanics of turning out voters. And, perhaps ultimately, politics is about relating to people on a personal level.

“Politics is about symbolism,” Scott’s pollster and top political advisor, Tony Fabrizio, recently told a Miami woman’s Republican club.

Fabrizio didn’t specifically address the nuances and vagaries of Obamacare, but spoke instead about the challenges of persuading voters who often hold contradictory opinions (disliking Congress, but loving their congressman; supporting government-spending cuts, but opposing cuts to major costly programs)

“That disconnect exists on every single level,” Fabrizio said. In contrast to political junkies, the average voter, he said, thinks “in generalitiesthey absorb and process things at a very, very different level.”

Floridians generally like the message Republicans have honed: lower taxes, less regulation and more personal freedom.

If anything, that explains why Obamacare remains unpopular in Florida in poll after poll.

Then there’s the flip side of insurance needs in Florida. If 25 percent are uninsured, it means 75 percent are insured (these are for the non-Medicare-eligible population). To help the other 25 percent, Obamacare raises some taxes (primarily on the wealthy), trims some future Medicare spending, increases government mandates and could lead to cost increases of some private insurance plans.

Hispanics, Florida’s fastest-growing and least-insured demographic, could benefit disproportionately from Obamacare and, polls show, generally trust government more than other racial and ethnic groups.

But if Democrats fail to make the case to Hispanics and if Hispanics don’t turn out in 2014 (in a repeat of 2010), their support in public-opinion polls won't mean much.

And if many private health insurance costs skyrocket or its services diminish, as some Republicans predict, Obamacare could prove to be a political disaster.

Obamacare’s Medicare cuts already proved troublesome in 2010. Retirees, far more-likely to vote than poor or working-class people, sided with the GOP. And, as was reported at a 2009 South Carolina town hall, some retirees might be more likely to say without realizing the irony: “keep your government hands off my Medicare.”

Talk about a disconnect.

But it worked for Republicans and groups like Conservatives for Patients Rights, which sent out “town hall alert” notices and advertised heavily against the law at the time. CPR was founded by Scott, polled by Fabrizio.

The CPR campaign was a springboard to run for governor for Scott, who had also opposed President Bill Clinton’s health initiative pushed by Hillary Clinton in 1993. In between, Scott grew Columbia/HCA into the biggest hospital chain before it was fined a record $1.7 billion related to Medicare fraud.

Yup: Scott earned a good portion of his personal fortune through a hospital chain that relied in good measure on government-run healthcare. He then campaigned against government-run healthcare — often without mentioning that the heart of the Obamacare law, an “individual mandate” that everyone buys insurance, was embraced by conservatives when they fought “Hillarycare.”

President Obama, too, has done his share of flip-flopping on the issue. He opposed the individual mandate in 2008.

Yet Obama won both Florida and national office twice, and the second time he beat out Republican Mitt Romney who made an individual mandate central to his health overhaul as governor of Massachusetts.

By the time of the 2012 elections, the lines were clear: Obama was the we’re-in-this-together candidate; Romney was the free-market guy bashing Obamacare

An apt summation of the Republican health position: “We do not want socialized medicine One of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.”

But Romney didn’t say that.

That was Ronald Reagan, talking about Medicare, in 1961. And Florida twice elected him, too.

Floridians also gave Pepper a shot. A year after that Reagan Medicare speech, Pepper was elected to a Miami-based U.S. House seat where he served until his death in 1989.

In that time, Pepper gained a reputation for getting under President Reagan’s skin and for being a tireless champion of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, which together pump about $100 billion in cash into Florida every year.

Sen. Smathers voted for such social programs along with Rep. Pepper, and the senator later expressed regrets about the 1950 campaign. So did some members of the still-powerful Florida Medical Association, which helped defeat the Pepper.

Health insurance wasn't the only knock against Pepper during the Senate race. His pro-Stalin leanings were devastating, said Clark, the historian. After the loss, Clark said, Pepper learned to be fiercely anti-communist for his comeback House race.

Pepper showed Florida politicians the importance of the senior vote and social-welfare programs. But he was careful with his words; he understood the symbolism.

“He didn’t call it ‘socialism,’” Clark said. “He called it ‘government spending.’”