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Democrats Divided on How to Recover from Obamacare Democrats Divided on How to Recover from Obamacare

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Democrats Divided on How to Recover from Obamacare

Former Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg argues Obamacare could be a political winner. Other Democratic strategists are more nervous.

Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg believes Democrats shouldn't be so defensive over Obamacare.

photo of Alex  Roarty
December 13, 2013

How much should Democrats worry about Obamacare politics in 2014? Even the party's top political minds can't agree.

On Thursday, senior Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg told reporters that the Republican focus on hitting Democrats over Obamacare was a political "trap." Citing a new Democracy Corps poll he helped conduct, Greenberg said if Republican dwell on repealing the law while Democrats focus on fixing the economy, Democrats will come out on top.

"I know there is an initial opportunity in going after the rollout … I would argue this is a trap," he said. "The more they're on this, the more voters say they're just part of this extreme partisan gridlock [in Congress], and they're not addressing the economy and jobs."

 

Greenberg acknowledged the law's troubled rollout had cost President Obama and his party, and that, on a substantive level, the law needed to perform better. But his bottom-line assessment sounded like a relatively sanguine one: Don't worry, Democrats, you can win this fight aganst a still deeply unpopular Republican Party.

But other Democratic strategists aren't so calm. Mary Landrieu's campaign, for example, began airing a well-funded, tightly focused TV spot highlighting her effort to change the health care law by letting people retain their current health insurance. The ad was a reflection of the senator's declining popularity, which has taken a hit lately over the health care law.

Her actions open a window into how other Democratic pollsters regard the law. They're not panicked yet, but they are concerned. And they're telling other Democrats, especially those facing re-election next year, to start preparing themselves now.

"Dismissing it is, to me, a sign of foolishness," said Mark Mellman, a leading Democratic pollster who is working for Landrieu. "Having said that, obsessing over it is a sign of foolishness. Neither is justified in my view."

In private conversations, the split between the two opposing viewpoints grows even wider. The disagreement isn't so much about the damage already done: Everyone knows the party took a hit the last two months. What they don't agree on is the path back. Some Democrats, like Greenberg, believe the path out of the political doghouse is relatively straightforward. Bang the Republicans for their unpopular insistence on repealing the law, and hope the GOP fumbles its own response.

Remember the moment last cycle when Democrats told you we had 2012 in the bank because of the [Rep. Paul] Ryan [budget] plan?" said one Democratic operative. "And then Republicans, knowing they needed to respond, came back with their phony 700 million cut argument to help neuter the issue? Welcome back to that moment."

As Greenberg's polling suggested, there's evidence for this view. Majorities of adults want to fix or retain the Affordable Care Act instead of repealing it. And Republicans, while talking about emphasizing a message other than outright repeal, have struggled to do so amid backlash from the conservative base.

But it's not that easy, say other strategists. For one, in some of the 2014 battlegrounds, repeal is the more popular option among a conservative-leaning electorate. And dismissing Obamacare isn't so easy, either. As one strategist put it, the Ryan budget was a proposal that never passed, while Obamacare is making real changes in the country's health care system. And those changes won't stop before Election Day.

"To say it's not a wound is silly," said the Democratic strategist. "It is a wound."

The 12 Days of Obamacare

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