Democrats Are (Slowly) Learning to Love Obamacare

Democrats are getting more comfortable talking about the law, but don’t expect them to make it a central part of their campaigns.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 28: Obamacare supporters react to the U.S. Supreme Court decision to uphold President Obama's health care law, on June 28, 2012 in Washington, DC. Today the high court upheld the whole healthcare law of the Obama Administration. 
Sam Baker
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Sam Baker
Aug. 26, 2014, 1 a.m.

Demo­crats won’t be mount­ing a big polit­ic­al of­fens­ive around the Af­ford­able Care Act any time soon, but they’re be­gin­ning to test the pro-Obama­care wa­ters.

Head­ing in­to the 2014 midterms, Re­pub­lic­ans con­tin­ue to hold a clear ad­vant­age in the polit­ics of Obama­care. And even if the tide does ul­ti­mately shift for the law, it al­most cer­tainly won’t hap­pen by Novem­ber. Still, there are signs that Demo­crats are slowly be­com­ing more con­fid­ent talk­ing about the health care law, or at least parts of it.

“There is a palp­able com­fort that didn’t ex­ist as re­cently as six months ago,” said Chris Jen­nings, who worked on health care strategy in both the Clin­ton and Obama ad­min­is­tra­tions. “I think we’re in trans­ition, mov­ing from a de­fense to an achieve­ment strategy.”

If that trans­ition is hap­pen­ing, though, it’s still in its very early phases.

Demo­crat­ic strategists cau­tioned against read­ing too much in­to the trickle of pro-Obama­care mes­saging some can­did­ates have em­braced. The health care law is find­ing a place in Demo­crats’ cam­paigns of­ten as a byproduct of some oth­er polit­ic­al need, they said, not be­cause of a broad­er stra­tegic shift with­in the party.

They down­played, for ex­ample, the re­cent ad in which Mark Pry­or of Arkan­sas—one of the Sen­ate’s most vul­ner­able Demo­crats—high­lighted pop­u­lar pro­vi­sions of the Af­ford­able Care Act. The ad shows Pry­or, ap­pear­ing along­side his fath­er, dis­cuss­ing his own bout with can­cer and say­ing he “helped pass a law that pre­vents in­sur­ance com­pan­ies from can­celing your policy if you get sick, or deny cov­er­age for preex­ist­ing con­di­tions.”

Many lib­er­al pun­dits were ec­stat­ic about the spot, pro­claim­ing that Demo­crats fi­nally un­der­stood how to win on Obama­care. But Demo­crat­ic strategists said that wasn’t the most im­port­ant ele­ment; the ad is “very much about Mark telling his per­son­al story,” and not about mak­ing a pro-Obama­care ar­gu­ment, said Justin Barasky, a spokes­man for the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee.

“This is not a re­sponse ad by any means; this is a bio ad, this is an ad about who he is. They would have run this ad re­gard­less of what the polit­ics of ACA are,” a Demo­crat­ic strategist said.

Sim­il­arly, Sen. Kay Hagan has made the law’s Medi­caid ex­pan­sion a key com­pon­ent of her bid for reelec­tion in con­ser­vat­ive North Car­o­lina, which has re­jec­ted the cov­er­age ex­pan­sion.

Demo­crats’ emer­ging con­fid­ence comes as the law is tak­ing a smal­ler role in Re­pub­lic­ans’ at­tack ads. GOP can­did­ates and al­lies in a hand­ful of states—in­clud­ing North Car­o­lina—have shif­ted from an all-Obama­care-all-the-time ad­vert­ising strategy to one that in­cor­por­ates Obama­care in­to a lar­ger mes­sage about jobs and the eco­nomy.

All those trend lines are point­ing in the same dir­ec­tion, but that doesn’t mean Demo­crats have sud­denly won the up­per hand on Obama­care.

First of all, it might not work. Pry­or and Hagan have both backed in­to health care: He em­braced it as a way to tell a per­son­al story, and Hagan’s fo­cus on Medi­caid is one that should res­on­ate with the Demo­crat­ic base in her state. But there’s still a pretty good chance that Pry­or and Hagan—like many of their col­leagues who also voted for Obama­care—will lose.

And des­pite the ex­cite­ment Pry­or’s ad stirred up on the left, Jen­nings said he doesn’t ex­pect to see a rush of Demo­crats tak­ing the same tack. Can­did­ates have oth­er is­sues they’d rather fo­cus on, he said, and there’s “some health care fa­tigue out there”; after five years of bit­ter par­tis­an fight­ing about Obama­care, polls show most people are ready to move on.

The same polls also show that the health care law re­mains un­pop­u­lar—and poorly un­der­stood.

In the most re­cent monthly track­ing poll from the Kais­er Fam­ily Found­a­tion, the law’s fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ing held steady at 39 per­cent, while its un­fa­vor­able rat­ing rose to an all-time high of 53 per­cent. The same sur­vey has found that Re­pub­lic­ans’ op­pos­i­tion to the law is much more pas­sion­ate than Demo­crats’ sup­port for it. And even though the pub­lic at large wants Con­gress to fix the law rather than re­peal it, a ma­jor­ity of Re­pub­lic­ans said they’d prefer to keep the fo­cus on re­peal.

Those at­ti­tudes are so en­trenched that Demo­crats may nev­er hold an ad­vant­age on Obama­care. But polls also show that voters like many spe­cif­ic ele­ments of the law—which is prob­ably why Pry­or didn’t men­tion it by name when he de­scribed one of its cent­ral pro­vi­sions.

In Kais­er’s March poll, the most re­cent to sur­vey in­di­vidu­al com­pon­ents of the law, 70 per­cent of voters said they ap­prove of a policy re­quir­ing in­surers to cov­er people with preex­ist­ing con­di­tions. Just 54 per­cent, though, knew that policy was part of Obama­care. Like­wise, in the most re­cent sur­vey, just 37 per­cent knew that the law of­fers con­sumers a choice among private in­sur­ance plans.

That dis­con­nect has dogged Demo­crats throughout the Obama­care de­bate, and it helps ex­plain why Re­pub­lic­ans’ job is so much easi­er than Demo­crats’. But now that the law’s most pop­u­lar pro­vi­sions are fi­nally in place, Jen­nings said, Demo­crats can start to fol­low the ad­vice former Pres­id­ent Clin­ton has been of­fer­ing: Frame the de­bate around Re­pub­lic­an at­tempts to take away real-life be­ne­fits.

“Time is def­in­itely on the side of the ACA. As time goes by, more people be­ne­fit.”¦ It isn’t a the­or­et­ic­al dis­cus­sion any longer,” Jen­nings said.

Alex Roarty contributed to this article.
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