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Steve Daines takes the easy way out—again—on health care

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In these fractious times, when so much of the people's business seems to involve ruthlessly smashing one another, we need politicians who can bring us together. Fortunately, we have Steve Daines. As Montana's Republican in the U.S. Senate and a staunch critic of the Affordable Care Act, he is at the center of one of the most contentious policy issues of our time. And he is doing what he can to avoid talking about it.

Last week, he wrote a guest editorial for the Missoulian. It was not about the Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, or the tens of thousands of Montanans who will lose their insurance if that plan goes through, or the 23 percent increase in individual premiums proposed by the state's largest insurance provider, or even about the layoffs recently announced by Providence Health & Services. It was about meth.

"On my most recent telephone town hall with 28,000 Montanans, nearly 95 percent agreed that meth is a problem in Montana," Daines writes. He laments the toll meth takes on families and the economy, "which is why we need to do more to raise awareness about the meth epidemic in our state."

Now there's a topic Daines can really sink his teeth into. It's got the quality he looks for in a signature issue: near-total agreement. He would be hard pressed to find someone to take the con position and argue that no, meth is actually fine. Although Daines himself acknowledges that 95 percent of callers to his telephone town hall agreed that it was a problem, his solution is to "raise awareness"i.e., convince people it's a problem.

Daines calls for other solutions beyond awareness, including increased border security—a measure that coincides with what the Trump administration already wants to do—as well as "community involvement, education, prevention and treatment." That pretty much covers all the bases. I defy you to think of a way to address methamphetamine use that would not fall under one of those categories. Yet I also defy you to find a specific policy proposal anywhere in Daines' editorial.

This has been his modus operandi for years. First, identify a problem we can all agree on, like meth or—as he did close to Flag Day—flag desecration. Then, call for a solution. The key to this step is not to propose any specific plans yourself, since people might disagree about those. You want to avoid that kind of robust, concrete policy discussion at all costs. Just emphasize that the problem is serious and important, and that we should do something about it.

PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

After you've raised awareness, the final step is to go back to the senate and work on a plan to take health insurance away from millions. That's what Daines has been doing these last several weeks. In contrast to his volubility on the issues of drugs (bad) and the American flag (good), he's proven remarkably averse to talking about health insurance.

You will note that his consideration of the meth problem begins with a telephone town hall. That's because he hasn't held a real one in a long time. Since he rescheduled an appearance in Helena back in February to dodge protesters, Daines has taken pains to avoid the kind of face-to-face confrontations with constituents that have plagued his fellow Republicans on their visits home. He even called on the senate to cancel its August recess—a plan that would ostensibly allow him to keep working on repeal/replace, but also save him from having to look his constituents in the eyes.

If Sen. Daines does not want to be in the same room as Montana voters when he talks to us about his position on health care, it might be a sign that his position is wrong. The Republican plan in the senate, the Better Care Reconciliation Act, is wildly unpopular. A June poll conducted by National Public Radio put its approval rating at 17 percent. That makes it more popular than meth, but only by a little.

I think our Republican senator is looking at this issue the wrong way. If he viewed it from the other side, he could find the agreement he craves. He could take a principled position against his party's bill and enjoy consensus on an issue more important to Montanans than flag burning or even speed. Heck, he could even take an unprincipled position and oppose the bill solely to pander to voters back home.

That would be better than talking to us in vague terms over the telephone about issues with only one side. We didn't hire him to raise awareness of what we already know. These are contentious times in American politics. If Daines wants to avoid controversy, he's sitting in the wrong chair.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and the vital importance of raising awareness at combatblog.net.

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