In Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece, “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” the wanted rebel, Josey, encounters four union soldiers outside a general store. A snake-oil salesman recognizes Josey and shouts his name. The soldiers know they have to try to capture Wales, but fear to reach for a weapon, since Josey is lightning-quick. The tension builds as the soldiers sweat and stare, and Eastwood finally delivers his famous line: “Are you boys gonna pull them pistols, or whistle Dixie?”
I thought of Josey while reading about the goings-on in Washington DC, and Charleston. In DC, the right wing caught up with the renegade they swore to rid the county of: Obamacare. Now they’ve got it surrounded, with control of the Congress and the Presidency, and pretty soon, the Supreme Court, too. All they have to do is pull the trigger, and it’s repealed. It’s the moment they’ve been waiting for all this time. But they all seem to have flap holsters, and they’re in no hurry.
Despite all the promises to repeal Obamacare “immediately,” or “on day one,” or with a special congressional session, the clock is still ticking. When the Republican bill was analyzed, it turned out it would leave 24 million more Americans without insurance compared to the Affordable Care Act. That is somewhat embarrassing for President Trump, who promised he would cover “everyone.”
Some on the right, including both of West Virginia’s U.S. Senators, say the Republican bill is much too harsh, and that we can’t possibly let it go forward and strip away insurance from millions who need it. Sens. Manchin and Capito both believe a lot of Obamacare has got to stay, even while they keep their distance from Obama himself. But other Republicans, like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, say the bill is too generous, just another big-government giveaway, even if 24 million do lose their insurance. They want to repeal the law altogether and replace it with something else later on (they haven’t said what though). So it’s a standoff.
It’s not much different in Charleston. There the big crisis is over the state budget. For years, the right wing has said our government is full of wasteful spending that needs to be cut, and too-high taxes that need to come down. With near-supermajorities in the West Virginia House and Senate, they are suddenly in a position to do both. They can slash bloated budgets and lower taxes to their heart’s content. But for some reason, Republicans are hesitating at the moment of truth.
First they said they’d get rid of the income tax, but when the bill was analyzed and they found out that would turn a $600 million deficit into a $1 billion deficit, they went back to the drawing board. Then they said it was the Governor’s job to identify the cuts. When he didn’t bite, Senate President Carmichael and House Speaker Armstead released a list of general categories in the budget they were planning to cut, with no specifics. They did mention that they were “courageous” to include DHHR and K-12 education among the list of places to cut.
On further questioning, they said it would be up to the agencies to decide what exactly to cut. You might have thought that the Republicans would know, since they’ve been going on about the waste forever, but you’d be wrong. “Others will find the waste” is their new theory. And remember those promises not to raise your taxes? That’s subject to change without notice. The new “consumption tax” takes the sales tax from 6 percent to 8 percent and applies it to more things we buy – including food, which Democrats had made tax-free. Republicans plan to boost taxes on what regular folks buy as a way to make up for the money they’ll need later to get rid of income taxes on people who are wealthy. Not at all what they promised.
I wonder how many people who voted Republican thought they were getting higher taxes, less education for our kids, less drug treatment, less services for struggling families, and a tax cut targeted for the rich? It sure isn’t what they campaigned on, but here we are. West Virginia Republicans are playing the same game as DC ones: they don’t do what they said they came to do. Dozens of times, the Republican Congress “repealed Obamacare” – when they knew Obama would veto it. “Just give us the Presidency and we’ll do it!” they said. Now it’s time to deliver and, well, you know.
For my part, I think West Virginia needs expanded Medicaid. We need subsidies for individuals who are self-employed to be able to buy a policy and get coverage. A coal miner from McDowell County said during Bernie Sanders’ nationally-televised town hall this week that every American citizen deserves health care and the West Virginians in McDowell should get it regardless of their ability to pay. He and Bernie are correct if you ask me. Our state is owed a debt for its service to the country.
Likewise, our schools need more funding, not less. Regular people cannot afford the Republican “consumption tax” and shouldn’t have to pay it just so the wealthy can avoid income taxes. We need more drug treatment and more support for at-risk families, not less. That’s the plan that should be on the table.
But the hard right promised to hunt down and destroy Obamacare in Washington, and they won the election. The hard right said they would cut services in Charleston, and they won the election. Now it’s time for them to go to work. But instead of staring into the eyes of Josey Wales, they’re staring down us West Virginians, and the rest of the American people.
I’m betting they whistle Dixie.
Christopher J. Regan is the former vice-chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party and an attorney at Bordas & Bordas, PLLC, in Wheeling. He blogs at homeyesterday.com.