What a difference a governor makes! Just a week or so ago, people were asking, “With veto proof majorities in the legislature, what can Roy Cooper do?” Well, yesterday he told us. He can try to expand Medicaid. He can call out Republicans who won’t repeal HB2. He can call on the legislature to raise teacher pay to the national average. In other words, he can set the Democratic agenda and establish the terms of the political debate in a year with special legislative elections. And he can put the GOP on the defensive from the start of his administration.

Cooper’s move to expand Medicaid is a ballsy political move. At the same time Congress is debating repealing Obamacare and realizing that they’re about to strip health care from millions of Americans, Cooper is offering health care coverage to more than 500,000 North Carolinians who don’t have it. Republican Governors like John Kasich of Ohio and Rick Snyder of Michigan are asking Congress to keep the Medicaid expansion.

Repealing Obamacare may sound good as a slogan but in reality it means bringing back pre-existing conditions and kicking people off the insurance they’ve gotten through the program. To complicate matters, the incoming Trump administration says that people who have gained insurance through the Affordable Care Act won’t lose it. That sounds a whole lot like “If you like your policy, you can keep it.”

For their part, GOP legislative leaders say Cooper’s move violates a law they passed in 2013 that bans the governor from expanding Medicaid. So, their message will be, “Cooper is violating laws.” What people will hear, though, is “The legislature wants to deny people health coverage.” Cooper says the law is unconstitutional because it restricts the governor’s constitutional authority to accept federal funds. Politically, it doesn’t matter. That argument is secondary to the basic one about providing health care.

Cooper’s also keeping the pressure on the GOP over HB2. The legislature reneged on their end of the agreement to repeal the law in a special session just before Christmas. Republicans claim Cooper scuttled the deal but that doesn’t matter. Voters don’t care about process arguments. The world knows the GOP legislature enacted HB2 and that they can repeal it. After all, they have veto-proof majorities in both houses of the General Assembly.

No matter how loud they scream, Republicans will get the blame for HB2 as long as it’s on the books. And Cooper will get the credit as soon as it’s repealed, because he got elected campaigning against it. The GOP should cut their losses and repeal the law as soon as possible. The credit Cooper gets now won’t be enough to ensure his re-election, but the fallout from HB2 could hurt Republicans in the special legislative elections this coming November.

Cooper’s call for raising teacher pay to the national average is an easily understood and widely popular position. Republicans like to claim they’ve given teachers raises, but Cooper frames the debate moving forward. If the GOP is not willing to make that commitment, they’ll have to explain why. It certainly worked for Democrats a decade or so ago. We’ll see if it works again.

Cooper is clearly no Pat McCrory. He has a firm grasp of state government and a willingness to push an agenda that McCrory lacked. The legislature has had four years dealing with a push over. They’ll now have to figure out how deal with a governor who clearly plans to make himself a force in Raleigh.


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