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.

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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