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How Tea Party Hero Jan Brewer Saved Obamacare in Arizona

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06/19/13
In the Magazine
Mark Wilson/Getty

THIS WEEK, Arizona became the 24th state to approve Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare—but only because of the efforts of an extremely unlikely advocate: Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, a Tea Party hero who had once memorably wagged her finger in President Obama’s face on an airport tarmac.

A half dozen other Republican governors have acknowledged reality and signed on to Medicaid expansion as well, but Brewer’s reversal stands out—both because of her right-wing credentials and because of how vigorously she challenged her own side. When the Arizona legislature balked at passing the legislation, she showed her displeasure by refusing to sign any further bills until the lawmakers acted. Reacting to this unladylike behavior, the conservative National Review said that it was “conduct unbecoming of a chief executive,” and that Brewer was “throwing a gubernatorial temper tantrum on behalf of expanding government-run health care.” When after months of stalemate the legislature adjourned without voting, Brewer didn’t back off; she doubled down, calling a surprise special session that let lawmakers know she meant business. Both houses soon capitulated.

Matthew Benson, the governor’s spokesman, says that Brewer—who was one of 26 Republican governors to challenge Obamacare in court—would still like to see the law repealed. “But she also recognizes that it’s going nowhere for the foreseeable future,” he explains. “Democrats have the presidency and the Senate, and after the remainder of Obama’s term, it’s an uphill climb.” Brewer has said her decision was dictated by math, not ideology. The federal dollars gained through Obamacare will cover more than 300,000 Arizonans, including many elderly in nursing homes.

The result of Brewer’s victory is not just more federal money for Arizona; it’s also a new image for her. People of varied political viewpoints are now looking at her with admiration. Indeed, the way Brewer worked her will shows what is possible when a chief executive makes a decision independent of party label and ideology—and then has the courage to stick to it.

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