RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The president gave a big speech last night. And then, as is custom, someone from the opposing party gave a response. The Democrats chose someone who knows something about winning over voters in a predominantly red state, which is what that party needs to do more of. Steve Beshear served as the governor of Kentucky from 2007 to 2015. In his address last night, Beshear touted his credentials as a Washington outsider. And he contrasted his approach as governor to Donald Trump's approach as president.
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STEVE BESHEAR: The America I love allowed a small-town preacher's kid to be elected governor. And it taught me to embrace people who are different from me, not vilify them. The America I love has always been about looking forward, not backward, about working together to find solutions regardless of party.
MARTIN: We're joined now on the line by Governor Beshear. He is in Lexington, Ky. Thanks so much for being with us.
BESHEAR: Good morning.
MARTIN: You watched the president's speech from a diner in Lexington, which is also where you gave your response. How did the people who were in that room with you - how did they respond to the president's speech?
BESHEAR: Well, like me, they - they felt that the pluses were, he stayed on script. You know, and that was - that was unusual for this president so far. But you basically heard generalities, no details. And - and obviously, some of the things we disagreed with. But, you know, Democrats stand ready to work with this president if this president really wants to work with them. And what that means is, is that both sides sit down and find some common ground to move this country forward. That's what I did as governor in Kentucky for eight years. And we - we had great progress because of that.
MARTIN: So let's talk about what you did in Kentucky. You were governor when the Affordable Care Act was passed. And you successfully were able to make a go of it in that state. Before we talk about how you were able to convince people in Kentucky to get on board, let's play a clip of some of what President Trump said about Obamacare last night.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Obamacare premiums nationwide have increased by double and triple digits. As an example, Arizona went up 116 percent last year alone. Governor Matt Bevin of Kentucky just said Obamacare is failing in his state, the state of Kentucky. And it's unsustainable and collapsing.
MARTIN: Your successor and Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin getting a mention there. Recent polls have shown an increase in support for Obamacare. But it's still under 50 percent. So what should your party have done differently in selling the Affordable Care Act to the public?
BESHEAR: The thing that people need to focus on are their lives and their families. You know, it got so political so quickly. And, of course, the Republicans demonized it as much as they could. And they made the phrase Obamacare almost a curse word out here in America. When we implemented it, you know, we changed the name of it. And we focused on people. We told people, look, you don't have to like the president, and you don't have to like me because it's not about the him or me. It's about you and your family and your kids.
MARTIN: But by changing the name - I'm sorry to interrupt. By changing the name, didn't that add to the branding problem that people still don't even understand that the ACA is Obamacare?
BESHEAR: No, they do now. And - and what we did was to start out, to try to get people to actually take a look. And they did take a look. They trusted me enough to take a look. And they liked what they found. And as you know, I mean, we signed up 500,000 Kentuckians. Our uninsured rate went from over 20 percent to 7 percent in just about 18 months to two years. People just came out of the woodwork to take advantage of health care availability for the very first time in their lives.
And their lives now are getting better for it. They now don't care what it's called. They know that this is the Affordable Care Act. But they don't want to lose it. They don't like that name, but they sure don't want any of these Republican plans, all of which are going to rip this health care insurance away for millions of Americans and from hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians.
MARTIN: Is this an issue Democrats need to just double down on? Do they need to - to keep making the case to the American public for Obamacare?
BESHEAR: This is an issue that Democrats are willing to sit down with Republicans and work on. We know that there are issues with the Affordable Care Act, and they need to be fixed. But it takes two sides to find the path forward. And so far, as I mentioned, every Republican plan wants to take health care away from people. Our bottom line is simply this. In 2010, this country made a commitment to Americans. And that was that every one of them would have affordable, quality health care.
And as long as a plan comes forward that continues to do that and makes this operation better than what it is right now, we'll be for it. And we'll work with the other side to implement it. But don't go starting to pull this stuff away from Americans. They're not going to like it. We don't like it. And we're not going to stand for it.
MARTIN: Former governor of Kentucky, Steve Beshear. He gave the Democratic response to the president's address last night. Thanks so much for your time.
BESHEAR: Thank you.
MARTIN: And I'm joined now in the studio by NPR's Scott Detrow. He's been with us all morning. So we were hearing there from the former governor of Kentucky about the need for Democrats to - to work with Republicans to try to come up with some solution. Although, we haven't exactly been hearing that from the Democratic leadership. They're like, you know, yeah, it's hard fixing health care.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Right.
MARTIN: You guys do it.
DETROW: Yeah, it took us two years to do it, and we had much larger majorities than Republicans have in Congress right now. I think the biggest thing to look for, when it comes to the Obamacare issue and what happens next, is the debate between the Republican Party right now because they have to do something because they talked about this for close to eight years now, saying, we're going to repeal Obamacare. But there's a real divide in the Republican Party, where there are some members saying, we need to keep the basic shell in place. We can't scale back coverage for people who are covered.
And there's others saying, no, we need to get rid of everything. So the Republicans are trying to work that out right now. There's going to be a big Senate Republican meeting today to try and get on the same page. As that is happening, Democrats are kind of holding back. They do have leverage in this conversation because while technically Republicans could totally repeal Obamacare without any Democratic votes, Democrats need to be part of the voting block to put something new in place.
MARTIN: And also, we should just note, really interesting that Democrats chose a 72-year-old white guy from Kentucky, who's not in office currently - because he was able to sell Obamacare in a red state. They thought it mattered.
DETROW: Right. I think this was less, you know, this is a leader of the party, a possible future presidential candidate, which you see a lot in the - in the opposition response. This was an issue of, this is a Democrat who made pragmatic choices and made Obamacare work in a red state. That was a - that was a story Democrats were trying to tell last night.
MARTIN: All right, NPR's Scott Detrow. Thanks so much for talking with us, Scott.
DETROW: Thank you.
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