When Congressman Jim Clyburn took the dais Saturday morning at the South Carolina Democratic Party Convention, saying Medicaid expansion under Obamacare ought to be “the issue” in this year’s governor’s race, at first it sounded like Clyburn the Washingtonian tweaking local Democratic caution from the safety of his gerrymandered district.
After all, despite having driven down the number of uninsured Americans to its lowest level since 2008, Obamacare remains immensely unpopular in South Carolina, and, as recently as mid-April, Clyburn compared S.C. Democrats’ attempts to distance themselves from the Affordable Care Act as “up there with seceding from the Union as far as being dumb.”
In the months prior, gubernatorial hopeful Vincent Sheheen had sat silently as Gov. Nikki Haley accused him via social media of ducking Obamacare debate at the State House, and Rep. Bakari Sellers, Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, had introduced legislation he claimed would “lessen the burden” of Obamacare.
But the state Democratic contenders who followed Clyburn on Saturday morning sounded a decidedly different note, coming off more like their national counterparts than the “South Carolina Democrats” who’ve traditionally shied away from progressive social stances and drawn criticisms of gutlessness from their base.
S.C. Democrats, it seemed, were intent on proving themselves up for a fight and bringing the strong rhetoric with which to punch. Convention delegates lapped it up, welcoming Sheheen to the stage like a conquering hero instead of the empty suit accused by Free Times columnist Kevin Fisher last week of running a eunuch’s campaign.
Sheheen responded by going for the throat, attacking Haley’s scandal-plagued Department of Social Services for “how numbers are being manipulated to make this administration look better” and “how they’ve never seen this many skull fractures, this many broken bones” among children at the agency.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘Vincent, you shouldn’t talk about it.’ Well, I’m going to talk about it. I’m going to talk about it because nothing will change if we don’t lift our voices, if we don’t demand change,” he said, reaching his riff’s crescendo to wild applause.
Then, Sheheen promised to expand Medicaid through Obamacare for South Carolina.
Shortly after, convention organizers screened a video message from Sen. Brad Hutto (D-Orangeburg), who’s running for Lindsey Graham’s seat in Washington. But first, he has to knock out Jay Stamper, a primary contender who bills himself as a champion of progressives but who has aroused suspicion because of his past, which includes Internet-related political pranks, a controversial business career and three securities-related charges to which he pleaded guilty in 2006.
Hutto, the Democrats’ designated hitter when it comes to antagonizing South Carolina Republicans and lancing right-wing myths that tend to take root at the State House, spoke out like a bona fide liberal.
“I’m pro-public education, pro-health care reform, pro-Medicare, pro-Social Security and pro-choice,” he said. “I believe we should honor hard work again in this country and raise the minimum wage. I believe that ‘liberty and justice for all’ actually means for everyone, including the right to marry the person you love.”
Speaking to Free Times Monday, Clyburn acknowledged a recent shift in the S.C. Democratic Party’s tone, most visible in its tentative embrace of Obamacare. “The Democrats are waking up and getting back in touch with their Judeo-Christian fundamentals,” he said.
“I can’t tell you at what point it happened. I can only tell you why I think it happened. I don’t know that anyone got up one morning and all of a sudden a light switch went off. I think people are reading the reports. People are seeing what the impact [of Obamacare] is.”
Phil Bailey, director of the Senate Democratic Caucus, maintains that Democratic lawmakers have been consistent in pushing Medicaid expansion for the past two years, but concedes that Obamacare as an issue has become much less toxic since problems with healthcare.gov have been cleared up and Americans are beginning to report positive outcomes from the program.
“You’ve got 120,000 people in South Carolina who signed up through the exchange and that’s a significant number,” Bailey said. “We want to talk about that and we want to talk about how we can cover over 300,000 additional South Carolinians through Medicaid expansion.”
While it’s still unclear whether South Carolina Democrats are committed to the Affordable Care Act, as either a beneficial health care program or a winning electoral strategy, or merely Obamacare-curious in the run-up to an anticipated shellacking, Saturday’s convention indicated awareness among party leadership that the status quo was no longer cutting it with its base.
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