Ben Nelson must have felt like a punching bag.
The Democrat was the center of attention at a rally in downtown Omaha on Sunday — and much of the attention was unfavorable, as opponents of the health care legislation in Congress expressed outrage with his decision to cast the crucial 60th vote in favor of the Senate bill.
About 1,800 people attended the rally, whose star attraction was 2008 Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. The crowd at the Civic Auditorium was revved up, calling Nelson a “traitor” and a “sellout” and booing whenever his named was mentioned.
Huckabee urged the people, when they go to the polls, to remember the names of the politicians who voted for the bill.If a congressman stood proud and strong, reward them with re-election,” Huckabee said. “If they didn’t, bring them home.”
Some Republicans are saying that Nelson’s support of the health care bill could be his political Waterloo if he decides to run for re-election in 2012. They are calling it a “death knell” to his career.
But supporters point out that the next Senate election in Nebraska is three years away and that, by then, the health care bill may not be the hot potato it is today. Issues come and issues go; for instance, the economy overshadowed the Iraq war at the start of the 2008 presidential race.
In addition, Nelson will assuredly have the support of a Democratic base that has long wanted a health care overhaul.
“Ben has done so many things for the people of this state. I would be amazed if one single issue that had to be addressed would change the outcome of an election,” said Anne Boyle, former chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party. “I’m certain he would win again, if he decided to run again.”
One Democrat who has been in Nelson’s shoes agreed with Boyle.
Former Sen. Bob Kerrey drew considerable heat in 1993 when he voted for then-President Bill Clinton’s budget-cutting package, which included an array of tax increases.
Kerrey, too, was the swing vote. And, like Nelson, Kerrey drew national attention as he publicly anguished over whether to vote for the bill.
A month after the vote, Kerrey returned to the state and was confronted by angry Nebraskans. But a year later, in his re-election bid, he defeated Republican Jan Stoney by 10 percentage points.
Kerrey said Sunday he believes that Republicans will try to make health care an issue in 2012 if Nelson runs for re-election. But by then, Kerrey said, voters may see the benefits of the bill — or at least be more comfortable with the legislation.
“I do not think this will damage Sen. Nelson’s political career or haunt him if he runs in 2012,” Kerrey said. “Faced with the multiple challenges health care presents to states and the nation, I’d rather defend an ‘aye’ vote than a ‘nay.’”
The people at the rally expressed deep disappointment with Nelson, especially his abortion compromise and his agreement with the Senate leadership that secured full federal funding for Nebraska’s expanded Medicaid coverage, while leaving other states out.
Opponents of Nelson’s decision said the compromise amounted to a bribe.
Republican George Skidmore, 52, an accountant, said he voted for Nelson in the last election but will never do it again.
“It feels like he took a bribe for his vote,” Skidmore said.
Nelson said he had suggested that the bill include some Medicaid help for all states, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada decided on Nebraska-specific language.
Numerous GOP state senators and other elected officials attended the Sunday rally. Pete Ricketts, who challenged Nelson for his Senate seat in 2006, also attended.
Many in the audience said they feared that the bill would lead to rising debt and a government takeover of health care.
They carried signs that read “Give Ben the boot.” One person arrived in a pickup with what appeared to be a cardboard house in back. It read: “Nelsonville Housing. This is your house after health care.”
People at the rally signed petitions urging Nelson to reconsider his support of the bill.
The fallout from Nelson’s decision wasn’t limited to the rally.
Nebraska Republican Gov. Dave Heineman criticized Nelson on Sunday for agreeing to the Medicaid deal.
“Nebraskans did not ask for a special deal, only a fair deal,” Heineman said.
In addition, Nelson has drawn the ire of Nebraska Right to Life and the Nebraska Catholic Conference because of the abortion compromise.
Huckabee told the crowd at the rally he thinks the bill was an attack on citizens’ liberty. He especially opposes a measure in the bill that would require all Americans to purchase health insurance or face a fine or penalty.
“What happened to liberty in this country, where we made our own choices?” he asked.
Huckabee said in an interview before the rally that he thinks health care costs can be reduced if more emphasis is placed on prevention. Incentives could be developed to get people to watch their weight, exercise and stop smoking.
During his presidential campaign, Huckabee also supported the idea that Americans should be responsible for buying their own health insurance instead of relying on their employers for it.
If people purchased their own insurance, they could keep it if they found another job, he said.
Huckabee also argued that it was not a good system when someone buys a product for another person. Americans could become better health care consumers if they shopped on the open market for their own insurance, he said.
“If you pay for it, you’re going to have a much better understanding of what you’re going to be getting.”
Filed Under: Mike Huckabee 2012
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