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.

 People participate in a protest on the second day of oral arguments for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building on March 27, 2012 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
By Beth Reinhard
Feb. 6, 2014, 2:53 p.m.

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.”

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