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Where Is the Democratic Party's Pro-Obamacare Campaign?

No headline candidate or big-money advocacy group, not even OFA, is running political ads touting the health law's successes. Instead, they're trying to change the message.

(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

February 6, 2014

The most robust defense of Obamacare on television right now lasts about three seconds and comes from a little-known Texas Democrat named Barbara Mallory Caraway, a former state lawmaker running for Congress.

Her $20,000 spot says last year's government shutdown led by her home-state senator, Republican Ted Cruz, hurt "those people looking for health care insurance."

And that's it for political ads that tout the Affordable Care Act, even as anti-Obamacare ads flood the airwaves.


A Democratic super PAC indirectly plugged the health care law in a December ad, boasting that Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina "forced insurance companies to cover cancer and other preexisting conditions." Before that, campaign ad trackers say the last exclusively positive message on Obamacare aired in August when Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey bragged about helping to write the law. (He lost to Cory Booker in the Democratic Senate primary.)

Even Organizing for Action, the advocacy offshoot of President Obama's campaign, is focusing elsewhere, currently airing ads touting President Obama's support for raising the minimum wage. The last time OFA ran pro-Obamacare ads was last summer.

"Pro-Obamacare ads are like an endangered species, like seeing a unicorn or the Loch Ness monster," said Elizabeth Wilner, Kantar Media senior vice president for political advertising. "Democrats are either not talking about it at all or talking about it needing to be fixed."

In contrast to the gag order on the Democratic side, Republican critics of Obamacare have unleashed an unusually early and massive media blitz. Just one conservative organization, Americans for Prosperity, has already lavished $27 million, mostly on attacks since the health care program's troubled launch in October.

Its latest target is Mark Pryor, one of the most precarious Democrats seeking reelection to the U.S. Senate in 2014. "Obamacare doesn't work. It just doesn't work," says the unidentified woman in the ad, lamenting how people have lost their insurance, can't choose their own doctors, and will pay higher premiums.

There's another side to the story—if only Pryor wanted to tell it. In Arkansas, roughly 103,000 people without health insurance now have it, thanks to Obamacare. Yet Pryor's response this week to attacks on the health care law was a television ad assailing his GOP rival's position on Medicare, not Obamacare. "[Tom] Cotton voted in Congress to change Medicare into a voucher system that will increase out-of-pocket expenses for every senior in Arkansas," says the woman named "Courtney" in the ad.

Democrats' decision not to fight fire with fire is strategic: If they're arguing about the divisive and disruptive overhaul of the nation's health care system, they're already losing. That's even more true in the wake of a new Congressional Budget Office report that estimates the law would encourage about 2 million employees to leave the workforce.

"You don't want the election to be about Obamacare," conceded Neera Tanden, president of the liberal Center for American Progress, which in the past has urged the White House to more aggressively sell the health care law.

The reluctance to defend the health care law is not for lack of success stories. Roughly 4 million people have signed up for private insurance or qualified for Medicaid under Obamacare. Organizing for Action features dozens of satisfied customers on the "This is Why" section of its website.

Yet the scant mentions of the health care law in Democratic advertising are so apologetic that the spots could be confused with Republican attacks. "She blew the whistle on the disastrous health care website, calling it stunning ineptitude, and worked to fix it," said one ad aired on behalf of Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona. "Bruce Braley knows we need to fix the health care law," said another ad promoting the House member from Iowa. Louisiana's Sen. Mary Landrieu's first commercial targeted President Obama for his statement that people could keep their health care plans. "This is a promise that you made. This is a promise that you should keep," she says on the clip.

Others Democrats prefer to change the subject altogether, whether to proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare, last year's government shutdown, or the battle over the minimum wage. These issues allow Democrats to play offense instead of re-litigating the timeworn battle over Obamacare. Polls also suggest that voters care much more about the economy than health care.

"Groups like ours have to be responding to the attacks [on Obamacare] and making sure these races remain competitive, but there are a litany of issues important to voters," said Ty Matsdorf, a spokesman for the Senate Majority PAC, which ran the ads on behalf of Hagan and Braley.

Not everyone agrees with the Democratic Party's nonengagement policy on Obamacare. In Pryor's home state, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families is posting poignant videos featuring people who have obtained much-needed health care insurance.

"We wanted to make sure those people's stories are being told when the opponents are saying and spending so much," said Gerard Matthews, a spokesman for the advocacy group. "There's a vacuum out there. I would love for people to hear more, but we have limited resources and can't build out some huge, statewide campaign."

The latest video features husband and father Jason Mitchell, a construction worker with arthritis in both hips. "Having the medication that I need now and not having it then—it's night and day," he says. "There was times when I would literally just sit and cry all day long because there wasn't nothing I could do."

The clip ends this way: "My name is Jason Wayne Mitchell. I'm raising a family in Paragould, Arkansas, and the private option is helping us."

In some respects, it makes sense for Pryor to target his firepower at his opponent's record on Medicare. About 550,000 seniors depend on the health care plan—more than twice as many as the estimated number of people eligible for Obamacare in Arkansas. With 19 percent of its total population on Medicare, Arkansas has the second-highest share of people depending on the federal government's health care program in the country.

"For most people, especially midterm voters, Medicare is their health care," said Matt Canter, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Some people will wrongly assume that's shifting the debate, but we're actually speaking to voters about what they are experiencing in their lives."

This article appears in the February 7, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.

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