Analysis: Gov. Nixon starts term two with pledge one undone

Monday, January 14, 2013

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- In politics as in life, people don't always get second chances. Yet when Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon takes the oath of office today after a resounding re-election, the Democratic incumbent will have a second chance to fulfill a key pledge from his first campaign.

How Nixon goes about doing so could also shed light on whether this will be Nixon's final hurrah, or whether the 56-year-old, term-limited governor who has spent almost half his life in public office plans to step into an even brighter spotlight with a run for U.S. Senate or president in 2016.

There is precedent to suggest that Nixon may not wait too long before deciding whether to launch another campaign.

Nixon was just 10 months into his fourth term as attorney general in 2005 when he changed his campaign committee to indicate he was running for governor in 2008. At the time, Republican Gov. Matt Blunt had less than a year of his four-year term under his belt but had already enacted a sweeping agenda that cut about 100,000 low-income adults off Medicaid, revised the state's school funding method and bolstered protections for businesses against liability lawsuits and claims from injured workers.

Nixon pledged to restore Medicaid health-care coverage to those who had lost it, if he were elected governor.

But economic and political realities quickly set in after Nixon took his first gubernatorial oath Jan. 12, 2009. A recession-induced financial shortfall forced Nixon to cut the state budget instead of spending more on a bigger Medicaid program. And a Republican-led legislature rejected Nixon's trimmed-back attempt to restore coverage to at least some of those who had lost it.

After his first year in office, Nixon set aside his efforts to expand Medicaid. He remained silent about it through last year's campaign, refusing to take a position on whether to implement a portion of President Barack Obama's health-care law that could eventually expand Medicaid to about 300,000 working adults in Missouri.

Only after he won re-election in November did Nixon publicly announce his support for the Medicaid expansion. Now he's sounding more like the candidate from his first campaign -- traveling the state touting the health and economic benefits of broadening the scope of the Medicaid system.

"The Medicaid expansion gives Gov. Nixon a chance to go back to what got him elected in the first place," said George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University. "But the Medicaid expansion -- and pushing for it -- is potentially a dangerous path."

Dangerous in a political sense, that is, because of the potential for failure. Republican legislative leaders remain adamantly against it. House Speaker Tim Jones this past week referred to Nixon's proposal as "irresponsible," suggesting his "welfare expansion" could jeopardize funding for education.

Nixon reacted calmly, saying he looked forward "to educating and working with" lawmakers and expressing optimism that they ultimately would pass the Medicaid expansion before the session ends in mid-May.

Ironically, one of the chief complaints from Republicans about Nixon is that he hasn't provided much leadership on legislative issues -- sometimes waiting until after bills have passed to make his views known. Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey said Nixon strongly advocated for issues only on rare occasions through his first four years in office.

Now Nixon is more forcefully advocating for an issue that Republican lawmakers oppose.

Connor said Nixon's handling of the Medicaid expansion could provide a glimpse into his political aspirations. If Nixon wants to enter the Democratic primary for president in 2016, he may need to shift from the political center toward the left, Connor said. Yet if he wants to run for the Missouri Senate seat now held by Republican Roy Blunt, Nixon may be better off remaining in the political middle.

"If he pushes the Medicaid expansion, as a good Democrat would, that's a signal that maybe he's looking beyond the state of Missouri," Connor said. "If he's going to negotiate with the Legislature on the Medicaid expansion and somehow come to some agreement with the Legislature, then maybe that suggests his sights are still within the state of Missouri and running against Sen. Blunt."

There is a third option for Nixon in 2016. Political retirement. That too could affect how he governs, because he no longer would have to worry about whether decisions help or hurt his chances of winning election.

Nixon has deflected discussion of his future political ambitions.

Asked recently by The Associated Press if he could see himself running for president or national office, Nixon responded by acknowledging that his answer "evades the question." He said he's thinking only about the present.

"I know this will sound a little flippant, but this really is a rare opportunity to be a second-term governor," Nixon said. "My short term focus -- when I say short term, I mean over the next year -- is to do some things that will really stand the test of time for the state of Missouri."


EDITOR'S NOTE: David A. Lieb has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 1995. Follow him at http://twitter.com/DavidALieb

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