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Battle Joined

Jay Inslee
Rob McKenna
Last March, Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna joined twelve other Republicans and one Democrat in suing to overturn the Affordable Care Act. McKenna, a rare Republican to hold statewide office in Washington state, has been AG for seven years and is regarded as the presumptive nominee for governor in 2012. Should McKenna be elected, he would be Washington's first Republican governor since 1985.

Historically, McKenna has positioned himself as what long-time Washingtonians call a "Dan Evans Republican," after the popular moderate who occupied the state house from 1965-1977. From this light, McKenna's decision to join the lawsuit seemed puzzling: The ACA is by no means unpopular in western Washington, where the great majority of the state's population resides. To be elected governor, McKenna must peel off a significant number of western Washington's Democrats and Independents. Why McKenna has risked alienating them and galvanizing liberal opposition in order to secure an eastern Washington base that he is in no danger of losing remains a mystery. On the other hand, McKenna has long thrived in an area that is a political Death Valley for Republicans, so there's little doubt that he took his position without long consideration.

McKenna's expected opponent, seven-term Congressman Jay Inslee (WA-1), lost no time in attacking McKenna's position on the ACA. (Disclosure: I have known Inslee since his election in 1998.) Warm and thoughtful, Inslee is no mean politician himself: In 1998, he drew attention from around the country when he campaigned against incumbent Republican Rick White's support of Bill Clinton's impeachment. (Arguably, MoveOn.org drew its name from Inslee's campaign.) Inslee defeated White in a close election, then in 2000 became the first Democrat in the history of the First District to win reelection. He has won every race since then by a comfortable margin. Unlike McKenna, Inslee has not positioned himself as a centrist: Inslee is an unapologetic liberal who also happens to be an effective representative.

And, he is a strong supporter of the Affordable Care Act. Inslee has been direct in opposing Washington's participation in the lawsuit and has worked diligently to make McKenna's active support of the suit an early issue. McKenna, Inslee says, wants to have it both ways: He advocates overturning the ACA while claiming to support its key consumer provisions. McKenna responds that the real issue is about the constitutionality of the law:
People sometimes forget what this lawsuit is actually about: the constitutionality of the health care law. That’s what every judge who has ruled on the matter understands. As Judge Vinson most recently observed, the health care law should be revised in order to make sure it does not violate the Constitution.
And as Attorney General McKenna has said, he does not believe that every section of the new law, including protections for those with pre-existing conditions, violates the Constitution.  McKenna supports the need for affordable, accessible health care for the people of Washington and their families—he just doesn’t think we need to violate their Constitutional rights to give it to them.
So far, McKenna has not explained how the consumer protections he supports can be enacted successfully without the compulsory insurance at the heart of the bill.

In any event, the ACA is shaping up as a major issue in the 2012 Washington state gubernatorial election, as the expected main candidates include one of the bill's staunchest supporters and its most visible statewide critic. Both are formidable candidates whose strength will put Washington in the political health care spotlight in 2012.

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