How can Democrats win next year's election fight over Obamacare? Just lean back and let Republicans work their magic.
The GOP's unwavering demand that President Obama delay and dismantle the Affordable Care Act has been the hallmark of Republican opposition to the law since its passage in 2010, an unrelenting focus that has paved the way for the current government shutdown. But the approach has left little room for political nuance, making the party look inflexible about improving a law that is taking effect while they lament its existence.
Democratic strategists think that approach creates an opening with voters who, while skeptical of the Affordable Care Act, are far less interested in defunding it than making sure it works. So rather than fret about the political lumps they're about to take, Democratic operatives see a chance for victory.
"The old rhetoric of 'repeal and replace' has been more and less exposed to be a sham," said J.J. Balaban, a Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist. "Now it's 'repeal and repeal.'
"The Republicans have been so inflexible that they've made it harder to press their advantage on the issue," he added. "Democrats have clearly benefitted from that."
Such optimism seems bold, even silly, for a law whose popularity has sunk to new lows this summer. In every recent survey, more people are against it than for it, and in most cases the difference is significant. An NBC/Wall Street Journal survey last month reported only 31 percent of people favored the law – 44 percent didn't. Throw in a deluge of headlines about businesses cutting their health care and blaming Obamacare – evidence Republicans say of the looming implementation disaster -- and it's easy to understand why GOP members say they're giddy about re-litigating the issue in 2014.
But those aren't the numbers or headlines Democrats are paying attention to. Rather, with the law taking effect, they think the politics have shifted from an ideological argument to one about which party is trying to make it work.
In effect, while people don't like Obamacare, they like the Republican approach to it now even less.
Polls bolster their point. A recent survey from CBS News and the New York Times found 56 percent of Americans wanted Congress to uphold the ACA and make it work as well as possible, while only 38 percent wanted Congress to cut off funding to it. An internal survey from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee of 68 competitive House districts found similar results: 55 percent of voters there wanted to implement Obamacare effectively; only 40 percent want to repeal it outright. (The Democratic polling firm Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group conducted the survey in July.)
The public's desire to improve the law had led Democratic leaders to urge their members to take a pragmatic approach with voters. What matters is making sure the law works as well as possible, they argue, not whether it should have been passed in the first place.
"If you go back home and re-litigate the ideological war on the Affordable Care Act, you lose," Steve Israel, chairman of the DCCC, said recently. "If you back home and set up an Affordable Care Act implementation task force and you put people in a room and you say, 'OK, I want to solve these difficulties one by one, and I want to be a problem solver and not an ideological warrior,' you win."
Winning Obamacare politics would be a first for Democrats. In 2010, the law galvanized Republicans as Democrats lost seven seats in the Senate (one in a special election, six on Election Day) and their majority in the House. Its potency faded last year, but Republicans argue, convincingly, that highlighting the law's Medicare cuts helped them rebut Democratic charges the GOP wanted to "end Medicare as we know it."
Some Democrats think Obamacare, after being a subject of intense debate the last two elections, won't remain a top issue in 2014. Others figure that, at the very least, it can't get any worse for the party.
"We already hit rock bottom in 2010 and lost everyone we were going to lose on health care, and now we'll start winning people back," said one Democratic strategist.
And still others contend that the Holy Grail of Obamacare politics might yet come to pass: After finally seeing the benefits of millions receiving access to health insurance, the public could suddenly support the law.
"The more people experience the Affordable Care Act and the benefits of choice of affordable health care coverage, the better," said John Lapp, a Democratic strategist. "[It gets them] beyond the bogeyman scare tactics."
Of course, there's a flip side to that argument: The law's implementation turns into a nightmare. At that point, no amount of messaging might be enough to save the party from punishment during the 2014 election. After Tuesday's problem-filled unveiling the state-based exchange Web sites -- in which many of the millions who reportedly signed up were greeted with an error message -- Republicans are confident their long-held predictions of Obamacare doomsday are finally coming to pass.
"The Democrats have consistently engaged in magical thinking about Obamacare," said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist. "They expected political benefits from it since its passage, and they keep expecting some kind of marvelous transformative moment where people say, 'Paying more for crappier health care? Sign me up!' "
He added, "No large government social engineering program has ever been rolled out in the social media era, and the power of anecdotal horror stories -- and there will be countless screwups -- will leave a lot more Democrats than you think hiding in the tall grass."