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.

National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
Dec. 13, 2013, midnight

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.”

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