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Heller's "undecided" act may be intentional but it is not helping him

Jon Ralston
Jon Ralston

Dean Heller is dead, one in a series:

If Nevada’s senior senator loses his elected title in 470 days, he has a future as a Cirque du Soleil performer on the Strip. As a political contortionist, he has no peer.

He was for repealing Obamacare with no replacement before he was undecided on repealing Obamacare with no replacement. He was for dumping the Medicaid expansion in the two years before he invoked the Medicaid expansion’s benefits to justify his opposition to a bill repealing Obamacare. He continues to remind his supporters that he fervently wants to dump the Affordable Care Act, just as he did five years ago, even as he remains, according to some, the man who has held up repeal.

It has gotten so bad for Heller that the worst moment of his week was not being publicly threatened by the president of the United States as he sat next to him, laughing nervously and yet uproariously. Instead, the nadir for Heller (so far) came during a brief interview with Axios’ Caitlin Owens that is one of the most painful pieces I have ever read, like watching a slow-motion defenestration, cringing all the way until the final impact.

Heller, as he cements a capital reputation for avoiding the media, probably should have run away from Owens. I still cannot figure out what he was trying to say in the piece headlined, “Dean Heller is keeping his options open on health care.” To wit:

----Asked where he stands, Heller said: "I don't have an answer to that question. I truly don't have an answer to that question, because things are changing so quickly ... And it's not because I'm undecided – all I'm trying to do is get all the information I possibly can before I make a decision." I’m not undecided; I just haven’t made a decision.

----Asked what he would say to a voter who inquired as to what he would support, Heller said: “It just depends on the individual. We'll sit down and talk about what their concerns are, what their problems, then we'll address those specifically." Only possible translation: I would tell the person whatever he or she wanted to hear.

----Asked if Sandoval’s opposition to a straight repeal would be a factor in his decision, Heller said: “Everything's a factor. Everything's a factor." I’m speechless on that one.

This is the word salad of a man suffering from Re-Election Fear Syndrome.

I understand the calculus here: Heller doesn’t want to say much because he – and most everyone else – has no idea what the Senate will vote on next week, if anything at all. Straight repeal? Repeal and replace we have already seen? A new repeal and replace?

And despite his inconsistency and maundering, Heller cannot vote for a measure that guts Medicaid or kicks millions off health care because of what he said at that news conference last month with Gov. Brian Sandoval: “I cannot support a piece of legislation that takes away insurance from tens of millions of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Nevadans.”

Maybe he simply doesn’t want to embarrass the president even though the president humiliated him or embarrass Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell even though McConnell served him up for Trump last week.

Maybe it is indeed a smart political strategy to pose as undecided so you are the deciding vote, no matter what Hugh Hewitt says. Maybe he gets what he wants ultimately, maybe Medicaid is preserved to his (or more importantly, Sandoval’s) liking (billions of dollars later) and maybe he looks as effective as, say, Harry Reid.

And maybe the Buffalo Bills will win the Super Bowl next year and I’ll win the main event at the World Series of Poker in 2018.

Heller’s problem is that even if it were brilliant to play this as he has, even if he is committed to voting no on almost any bill next week (I think he is), his record and words undermine all that he is doing now.

His late 2015 vote to repeal Obamacare, a risk-free move because it was sure to be vetoed, stands in stark contrast to what he (and others) are doing now. As Rich Lowry wrote in National Review: “The 2015 law was tougher on the expansion — it simply ended it after two years — and yet all of today’s hand-wringers voted for it.”

At the time, Heller bragged about the bill’s erasure of the so-called Cadillac Tax, but when he was asked about the Medicaid expansion that Sandoval was the first Republican governor to implement, he told the National Journal about the overall bill: “Well, it’s going to be vetoed.”

Even as recently as January, Heller voted for a measure designed to gut Obamacare and lay the groundwork for the vote slated to finally take place next week. He expressed no reservations at the time about Medicaid recipients.

By not explaining why he looks at all of this differently now, besides speaking Hellerese or admitting it’s all about re-election, Heller is vulnerable to charges of being an opportunistic flip-flopper, one that even a Cirque performer would find impressive in his audacity.

I’ve said it before, and it bears repeating: Even though his numbers are awful – reliable polling shows him losing some of the GOP base and hemorrhaging indies – Heller simply does not lose elections. And no one knows what the impact of this issue will be come the June primary or the November 2018 general.

It is hard to forget, though, that Heller really wanted to run for governor until Attorney General Adam Laxalt scared him out and has told people he does not like his DC job. Even if he is keeping his options open on health care, by the time filing opens in March, the only option Heller may have is not to run at all.


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