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
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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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