A few days ago, I found myself a visitor in Lincoln, Nebraska, a city where I cut my teeth as a reporter. So with a bit of time on my hands, I decided to do some reporting there again, this time to see if the now-infamous Cornhusker Kickback was still on residents’ minds, and to get a read on Sen. Ben Nelson’s political future. I headed in the direction of Lincoln’s historic district, where the old Burlington railroad station has morphed into a banquet hall, and hipsters and seniors drink mochas in buildings that once housed saddlery shops. Plenty of people wanted to chat.
The Cornhusker Kickback still grates on Nebraskans. A refresher here: To secure Nelson’s crucial sixtieth vote to pass the health reform bill before Christmas, Senate majority leader Harry Reid bestowed a $100 million gift on Nebraskans and their Democratic senator, which would have helped the state cover its share of Medicaid costs for low-income Nebraskans.
No doubt that money would have helped the state treasury, but Nebraskans, despite their reputation for fiscal conservatism, would have none of it. The deal offended the sensibilities of the state’s residents, who apparently don’t care much for hand shakes in back rooms. The kickback made the state, which has one of the lowest mortgage default rates and where people still pay cash, look bad. Nelson has taken the heat ever since. Although Congress struck the provision from the final legislation, people were pessimistic about Nelson’s future.
“I see it as detrimental in getting him reelected,” Ed, a driver for UPS told me. “He singled out Nebraska and made people wonder what was going on under the table.” Thirty-one-year old Jeff Melichar, who was working at his family’s Phillips 66 station on P Street, put it this way: “We even had the governor of California knocking us.” Melichar, a Democrat, voted for Nelson, but he added: “This is not going to go away. Any Republican could stand on the corner and point Cornhusker Kickback and make him sound as shady as possible, and that’s it. I wish it wasn’t the case, but he damaged himself. The fact he voted ‘yes’ on the bill ended his political career in Nebraska.”
The health reform bill was not popular with people I talked to, whether they were young, old, or in-between. Nelson’s vote was “an absolute betrayal,” said seventy-two-year-old architect Robert Hanna. “He said he wouldn’t sign a bill that would increase the deficit and include illegal aliens which the bill does. Because of his action, I won’t vote for a Democrat ever again, under any circumstances.”
Hanna, a self-described independent, was so angry he couldn’t stop talking. “It’s not morally conscionable to increase the deficit and give assistance to illegal immigrants,” he said. When I told him the bill would not provide subsides for those folks, he had an answer: “They are going to try to make all those illegals now legal so they would be covered.” Hanna emphasized that the general population of the state is opposed to health reform. As for the Cornhusker Kickback—“that kickback hurt the image of Nebraska. I hear it referred to on almost any radio program.”
Jon, who wouldn’t give his last name, was cleaning the glass doors at Old Chicago, a beer and pizza joint. Although Jon, who is twenty-one, couldn’t vote the last time Ben Nelson ran for Senate, he said he would not vote for him if he ran in 2012. “I didn’t want him to vote for the health care package. I heard about Congressmen ignoring people in their districts,” he said. Why did he oppose the health bill? “Taxes might go up, and President Obama wanted to ram it through.”
Cindy, age fifty, was getting out of her vehicle when I stopped by. She, too, was eager to chat, and didn’t like the legislation one bit. Why, I asked? “It doesn’t fix the problem and will end up costing people more money. How can they pass something nobody read and is based on Massachusetts,” she wondered. “I know it’s a fairly hot topic in Massachusetts, and it is not particularly well liked up there.” I pressed her on what would fix the problem. “Tort reform,” she replied. “I don’t think you are going to fix it until you do that. Small towns can’t get doctors. In rural Nebraska there’s a doctor shortage. They can’t afford malpractice insurance.”