Two recent episodes demonstrate the near total lack of political flexibility afforded to Republican candidates on Obamacare, constraints that could undermine their efforts to take advantage of the health care law's deepening unpopularity. And they show why the White House, as it prepares for its own public relations blitz, has an opportunity to score some rare political points on an issue that has dogged it considerably the last two months.
Democrats continue to insist even after the Affordable Care Act's disastrous rollout that voters want to fix—not repeal—the law, and polling suggests they're right. Republicans appear to have an obvious rejoinder: They, too, could call for the law to be fixed, not outright repealed, to preserve its popular elements (like keeping young adults on their parents' health care plans).
But as a pair of Republican candidates have found out, doing so is easier in theory than practice, signaling that the fix-not-repeal frame could continue to provide Democrats an opening on an issue that is otherwise poised to weigh heavily on their 2014 election hopes.
Terri Lynn Land, who has emerged as the presumed GOP nominee in Michigan, earlier this month said during a radio interview that the party had moved past its repeal effort. "After you pass bills, you have to go back and do fixes," she said at the time. "That's not unusual. That's something I've done in the past, and that's something we need to do here."
Hours later, the Land campaign issued a statement reemphasizing her support for repealing Obamacare.
The motivation for her walk-back was obvious: She doesn't face a Republican opponent in the primary, but a softening tone toward the party's most hated piece of legislation in a generation is the surest way to draw an intraparty challenge.
The scenario repeated itself in Georgia. Last week, Rep. Jack Kingston—one of five Republican Senate candidates in the Peach State—suggested the law's best elements should be preserved. His need for clarification was more immediate than Land's: Senate rival Paul Broun criticized his statement a day later, calling any effort to continue Obamacare "absolutely irresponsible," according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
On Sunday, Kingston appeared on Fox News to remind viewers he had voted "to kill" Obamacare 40 times.
"I think if we just hope sit back and hope it falls apart, it's the wrong thing," he said. "If it's teetering near the edge of the cliff, we should go ahead and push it over."
Both walk-backs underscore just how little room for dissent Republicans allow on the Affordable Care Act, especially for those seeking office in 2014. Such lockstep agreement has let the party fight the law from a united front and contributed to the sense among voters that passage of Obamacare was deeply partisan. But it also nearly eliminates the kind of political nimbleness that would allow Republicans to better take advantage of the increasingly unpopular reform. It's the same stubbornness that contributed to Republicans' doomed effort to defund the health care law, which scarred the GOP's image.
That doesn't mean Democrats have a chance to turn Obamacare into an advantage next year. The law's troubles have sent President Obama's approval ratings to the lowest point of his presidency, and several state polls have shown a corresponding rise in disapproval among Democratic senators up for reelection next year. Those metrics are more important in determining the law's impact on 2014.
But Democrats need to salvage what benefit they can from Obamacare. And so far, Republicans are lending them a helping hand.
This story has been updated.