Are Republicans Handing the Obamacare Advantage to Dems?

Americans don’t like the program, but they like the GOP approach to killing it even less.

From left to right: Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT), Assistant House Minority Leader Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) and House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) listen during a news conference on Capitol Hill.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
Oct. 2, 2013, 9:57 a.m.

How can Demo­crats win next year’s elec­tion fight over Obama­care? Just lean back and let Re­pub­lic­ans work their ma­gic.

The GOP’s un­waver­ing de­mand that Pres­id­ent Obama delay and dis­mantle the Af­ford­able Care Act has been the hall­mark of Re­pub­lic­an op­pos­i­tion to the law since its pas­sage in 2010, an un­re­lent­ing fo­cus that has paved the way for the cur­rent gov­ern­ment shut­down. But the ap­proach has left little room for polit­ic­al nu­ance, mak­ing the party look in­flex­ible about im­prov­ing a law that is tak­ing ef­fect while they lament its ex­ist­ence.

Demo­crat­ic strategists think that ap­proach cre­ates an open­ing with voters who, while skep­tic­al of the Af­ford­able Care Act, are far less in­ter­ested in de­fund­ing it than mak­ing sure it works. So rather than fret about the polit­ic­al lumps they’re about to take, Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ives see a chance for vic­tory.

“The old rhet­or­ic of ‘re­peal and re­place’ has been more and less ex­posed to be a sham,” said J.J. Bal­aban, a Phil­adelphia-based Demo­crat­ic strategist. “Now it’s ‘re­peal and re­peal.’

“The Re­pub­lic­ans have been so in­flex­ible that they’ve made it harder to press their ad­vant­age on the is­sue,” he ad­ded. “Demo­crats have clearly be­ne­fit­ted from that.”

Such op­tim­ism seems bold, even silly, for a law whose pop­ular­ity has sunk to new lows this sum­mer. In every re­cent sur­vey, more people are against it than for it, and in most cases the dif­fer­ence is sig­ni­fic­ant. An NBC/Wall Street Journ­al sur­vey last month re­por­ted only 31 per­cent of people favored the law — 44 per­cent didn’t. Throw in a de­luge of head­lines about busi­nesses cut­ting their health care and blam­ing Obama­care — evid­ence Re­pub­lic­ans say of the loom­ing im­ple­ment­a­tion dis­aster — and it’s easy to un­der­stand why GOP mem­bers say they’re giddy about re-lit­ig­at­ing the is­sue in 2014.

But those aren’t the num­bers or head­lines Demo­crats are pay­ing at­ten­tion to. Rather, with the law tak­ing ef­fect, they think the polit­ics have shif­ted from an ideo­lo­gic­al ar­gu­ment to one about which party is try­ing to make it work.

In ef­fect, while people don’t like Obama­care, they like the Re­pub­lic­an ap­proach to it now even less.

Polls bol­ster their point. A re­cent sur­vey from CBS News and the New York Times found 56 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans wanted Con­gress to up­hold the ACA and make it work as well as pos­sible, while only 38 per­cent wanted Con­gress to cut off fund­ing to it. An in­tern­al sur­vey from the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee of 68 com­pet­it­ive House dis­tricts found sim­il­ar res­ults: 55 per­cent of voters there wanted to im­ple­ment Obama­care ef­fect­ively; only 40 per­cent want to re­peal it out­right. (The Demo­crat­ic polling firm Gar­in-Hart-Yang Re­search Group con­duc­ted the sur­vey in Ju­ly.)

The pub­lic’s de­sire to im­prove the law had led Demo­crat­ic lead­ers to urge their mem­bers to take a prag­mat­ic ap­proach with voters. What mat­ters is mak­ing sure the law works as well as pos­sible, they ar­gue, not wheth­er it should have been passed in the first place.

“If you go back home and re-lit­ig­ate the ideo­lo­gic­al war on the Af­ford­able Care Act, you lose,” Steve Is­rael, chair­man of the DCCC, said re­cently. “If you back home and set up an Af­ford­able Care Act im­ple­ment­a­tion task force and you put people in a room and you say, ‘OK, I want to solve these dif­fi­culties one by one, and I want to be a prob­lem solv­er and not an ideo­lo­gic­al war­ri­or,’ you win.”

Win­ning Obama­care polit­ics would be a first for Demo­crats. In 2010, the law gal­van­ized Re­pub­lic­ans as Demo­crats lost sev­en seats in the Sen­ate (one in a spe­cial elec­tion, six on Elec­tion Day) and their ma­jor­ity in the House. Its po­tency faded last year, but Re­pub­lic­ans ar­gue, con­vin­cingly, that high­light­ing the law’s Medi­care cuts helped them re­but Demo­crat­ic charges the GOP wanted to “end Medi­care as we know it.”

Some Demo­crats think Obama­care, after be­ing a sub­ject of in­tense de­bate the last two elec­tions, won’t re­main a top is­sue in 2014. Oth­ers fig­ure that, at the very least, it can’t get any worse for the party.

“We already hit rock bot­tom in 2010 and lost every­one we were go­ing to lose on health care, and now we’ll start win­ning people back,” said one Demo­crat­ic strategist.

And still oth­ers con­tend that the Holy Grail of Obama­care polit­ics might yet come to pass: After fi­nally see­ing the be­ne­fits of mil­lions re­ceiv­ing ac­cess to health in­sur­ance, the pub­lic could sud­denly sup­port the law.

“The more people ex­per­i­ence the Af­ford­able Care Act and the be­ne­fits of choice of af­ford­able health care cov­er­age, the bet­ter,” said John Lapp, a Demo­crat­ic strategist. “[It gets them] bey­ond the bo­gey­man scare tac­tics.”

Of course, there’s a flip side to that ar­gu­ment: The law’s im­ple­ment­a­tion turns in­to a night­mare. At that point, no amount of mes­saging might be enough to save the party from pun­ish­ment dur­ing the 2014 elec­tion. After Tues­day’s prob­lem-filled un­veil­ing the state-based ex­change Web sites — in which many of the mil­lions who re­portedly signed up were greeted with an er­ror mes­sage — Re­pub­lic­ans are con­fid­ent their long-held pre­dic­tions of Obama­care dooms­day are fi­nally com­ing to pass.

“The Demo­crats have con­sist­ently en­gaged in ma­gic­al think­ing about Obama­care,” said Rick Wilson, a Re­pub­lic­an strategist. “They ex­pec­ted polit­ic­al be­ne­fits from it since its pas­sage, and they keep ex­pect­ing some kind of mar­velous trans­form­at­ive mo­ment where people say, ‘Pay­ing more for crap­pi­er health care? Sign me up!’ “

He ad­ded, “No large gov­ern­ment so­cial en­gin­eer­ing pro­gram has ever been rolled out in the so­cial me­dia era, and the power of an­ec­dot­al hor­ror stor­ies — and there will be count­less screwups — will leave a lot more Demo­crats than you think hid­ing in the tall grass.”

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