Democrats in Denial Over Obamacare

Supporters of the health care law are convinced they can defend themselves on the issue. Don’t bet on it.

National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
Feb. 18, 2014, midnight

For nearly three years, the Demo­crat­ic ap­proach to the polit­ic­al un­pop­ular­ity of Pres­id­ent Obama’s health care law was deni­al. Deny it played a sig­ni­fic­ant role in the party’s his­tor­ic midterm losses in 2010. In­sist, in the face of con­tra­dict­ory evid­ence, that as more voters ex­per­i­enced the be­ne­fits of the law, the more pop­u­lar it would be­come. Deny it would be a ma­jor is­sue at all in the 2014 midterms.

The latest ver­sion of the ar­gu­ment points to polling show­ing that voters don’t want to re­peal the law but prefer to see it fixed — per­fectly in line with the newly ad­op­ted po­s­i­tions of vul­ner­able Demo­crat­ic of­fice­hold­ers. In a memo leaked to the press, Demo­crats ar­gue they can neut­ral­ize their health care vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies by pro­mot­ing their de­sire to fix the law and blam­ing Re­pub­lic­ans for in­transigence in seek­ing a full re­peal. But dig a bit deep­er past the talk­ing points, and it’s un­clear what they want to fix — bey­ond their broken poll num­bers.

In­deed, in a sign that Demo­crats are stuck in neut­ral on their Obama­care mes­saging, the “news” from the memo is months old. The strategy de­vised by the sharpest party op­er­at­ives has already been in ef­fect in nu­mer­ous ads across the coun­try and was pro­moted by the party’s top strategists two months ago. In those tar­geted races, pub­lic polling has shown Demo­crat­ic stand­ing worsen­ing where the on-air Obama­care de­bate has already be­gun. (See: Landrieu, Mary; Hagan, Kay.)

The main reas­on 2014 is dif­fer­ent than 2012 isn’t the qual­ity of the mes­saging. It’s that the law is now a real­ity af­fect­ing mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans — and more don’t like the changes. The most im­port­ant test on the ul­ti­mate suc­cess of the health care law will be wheth­er voters think they’re get­ting a bet­ter deal out of the law than not. And all avail­able evid­ence, from polling to the gov­ern­ment’s cherry-picked en­roll­ment data, sug­gests that sup­port­ers face a tough chal­lenge mak­ing the sell.

The ac­tu­al num­ber of Amer­ic­ans who gained in­sur­ance through the law is much lower than the 3.3 mil­lion the White House is claim­ing. The num­bers re­leased by the Health and Hu­man Ser­vices De­part­ment in­clude many people with in­sur­ance who were forced out of their pre­vi­ous in­di­vidu­al mar­ket plans onto the Obama­care ex­changes. It also in­cludes those who signed up but nev­er paid for in­sur­ance — which makes up about one-fifth of those en­rollees, ac­cord­ing to a New York Times ana­lys­is.

For a crys­tal-clear sign of the polit­ic­al woes Obama­care faces, look no fur­ther than the ad the Demo­crat­ic House Ma­jor­ity PAC is air­ing in a ma­jor­ity-His­pan­ic south Flor­ida dis­trict that Obama car­ried twice. The seat, rep­res­en­ted by fresh­man Rep. Joe Gar­cia, is one of a small hand­ful in the coun­try that gave Obama a lar­ger share of the vote in 2012 than in 2008 — he won 53 per­cent last elec­tion. It’s also one of the me­dia mar­kets where the Obama pres­id­en­tial cam­paign spent mil­lions of dol­lars in Span­ish-lan­guage ads prais­ing the law in un­equi­voc­al terms.

This new ad, as part of the dam­age con­trol, con­tains no such ac­col­ades. It pro­motes how Gar­cia “took the White House to task,” ref­er­en­cing its “dis­astrous” health care web­site. Like its coun­ter­parts, it ar­gues Gar­cia wants to fix the broken law. Demo­crat­ic strategists said that out­side of the most lib­er­al pre­cincts, they can’t per­suade people of the law’s be­ne­fits un­til they ac­know­ledge its prob­lems first.

The Gar­cia ad shows that even in an Obama­care strong­hold, where sup­port for the law ran well ahead of its na­tion­al num­bers, dis­sat­is­fac­tion is creep­ing up. In­deed, The New York Times re­por­ted that un­in­sured His­pan­ics were sign­ing up for the law at “strik­ingly” lower rates than an­ti­cip­ated. One Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ive in­volved in the race told me it was much harder to find non­par­tis­an Obama­care ad­voc­ates to cheer­lead for the law in South Flor­ida this year — com­pared with 2012.

Pay close at­ten­tion to next month’s spe­cial elec­tion in a clas­sic bell­weth­er Flor­ida dis­trict, where Re­pub­lic­ans are seek­ing to na­tion­al­ize the race on the health care law. By all ac­counts, Demo­crats have the stronger can­did­ate — a former gubernat­ori­al nom­in­ee (Alex Sink) versus a lob­by­ist (Dav­id Jolly). Out­side groups have been pour­ing in mil­lions, eager to make the race a ref­er­en­dum on Obama­care. If Sink wins, it will show that strong can­did­ates can over­come a chal­len­ging na­tion­al en­vir­on­ment. But if Jolly wins, it’ll be a clear sign of the po­tency of a na­tion­al­ized mes­sage over the mi­cro-factors that of­ten de­term­ine races: can­did­ate qual­ity, fun­drais­ing strength, and get-out-the-vote skills, where the Demo­crats hold ad­vant­ages.

One of the most trenchant cri­ti­cisms of Re­pub­lic­ans in 2012 is that they re­lied on “cook­ie-cut­ter” ads air­ing the same, stale anti-Obama­care mes­sage across the coun­try. But this year, Re­pub­lic­ans have a panoply of health care mes­sages to work with — per­son­al­ized ap­peals (such as the ads Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity have been air­ing), at­tack­ing Demo­crats over bail­out money to in­sur­ance com­pan­ies and hit­ting the double-stand­ard between pen­al­ties for busi­nesses and in­di­vidu­als, just to name a few. It’s Demo­crats, from red-state Demo­crat Mary Landrieu to a blue-dis­trict His­pan­ic Demo­crat like Gar­cia, who have been air­ing ads that are strik­ingly sim­il­ar in mes­sage.

It shouldn’t come as a sur­prise that more voters sup­port “fix­ing” something than re­peal­ing a law; as any pro­fes­sion­al word­smith can tell you, it al­ways sounds more con­struct­ive to fix something that’s broken. But it doesn’t ad­dress how voters dis­sat­is­fied with the health care law will act when giv­en the choice between a law­maker who voted for a broken law and a chal­lenger with the free­dom to run against it however he sees fit. (In fact, two red-state Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate can­did­ates, Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes in Ken­tucky and Michelle Nunn in Geor­gia, have been able to ride above the Obama­care fray so far — be­cause they didn’t vote on it. )

All signs point to Re­pub­lic­ans hav­ing a fruit­ful Elec­tion Day run­ning against the pres­id­ent’s health care law. The Sen­ate map is ex­pand­ing to states like Michigan, Iowa, and Vir­gin­ia, while sen­at­ors are los­ing trac­tion in the red-state seats Demo­crats need to de­fend. It may be news that Demo­crats are do­ing what they can to mit­ig­ate the law’s polit­ic­al dam­age, but it doesn’t mean that those ef­forts will be able to stop the bleed­ing.

Demo­crats are now in the bar­gain­ing stage of Obama­care grief, but it’s shap­ing up as a pre­lude to a Novem­ber de­pres­sion.

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