November 20, 2013
Ted Cruz (Steve Pope/Getty Images)
Ted Cruz (Steve Pope/Getty Images)

In 2012, the meta-pundit narrative turned on whether the election would be a choice between two visions for the future (as Dems hoped) or a referendum on the anemic Obama status quo (as Republicans predicted). The outcome surprised observers who thought the weight of the bad economy made the latter inevitable.

Now Democrats are going to attempt a repeat performance around Obamacare, at a time when the law’s travails have triggered widespread predictions that it, too, will serve as the focus of a referendum, just as the Obama economy was supposed to last year.

I’m told the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is set to launch a new campaign designed to refocus the debate on the Republican position on health care, which Dems will widely label as “Cruz Care.”

With Ted Cruz set to roll out his own health plan — one that will probably look like the usual grab bag of GOP reform ideas, which just aren’t a reform alternative to Obamacare – Dems plan to tar GOP Senate candidates across the country with it, by hitting them as proponents of “Cruz Care.” Many GOP candidates also embraced Cruz’s Obamacare-driven government shutdown.

The “Cruz Care” campaign is grounded in a conviction that Republicans — and not a few D.C. pundits — are misreading public opinion on Obamacare. Dems believe that despite the law’s unpopularity, many voters don’t view the health care issue as a zero sum decision over whether Obamacare is good or bad. Rather, they can be persuaded to see this as choice — between fixing an admittedly imperfect reform and giving it a chance to work, and the GOP alternative, which is essentially to go back to the old system, where junk insurance and a lack of standards “exposed people to financial and medical calamity.”

“The polls all show that when you shift the conversation from `support or oppose’ to ‘fix versus repeal,’ Democrats have the advantage,” Matt Canter, a spokesman for the DSCC, tells me. Regular readers know I broadly agree polls show disapproval of the law does not equal support for the GOP position of repeal.

Republicans continue to maintain Obamacare will be nothing but a liability. “ObamaCare was designed with the intention of forcing millions of Americans from their current insurance into the ObamaCare exchanges,” says NRSC spokesman Brad Dayspring. “The same politicians and Washington insiders who promised that everyone could keep their health insurance and doctors if they wanted despite knowing and voting otherwise are now asking voters to trust them? Vulnerable Democrats face an ugly choice: Admitting incompetence or admitting that they lied.”

Hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent on ads about Obamacare in 2014, and huge sums will be spent on the Dem side to recast the debate as a choice between sticking with a flawed law and returning to the pre-reform status quo. This could play differently in different races, depending on how each vulnerable Senate Dem handles Obamacare.

While the punditry has focused on Dems supposedly “running away” from the law, what is really happening is they are adopting variations of the “keep and fix” message that will be central to the Dem approach next year. Dems like Kay Hagan, Mary Landrieu, and Mark Pryor are embracing various “fixes,” but they will be attacking GOP opponents for supporting repeal. Dems remain committed to sticking with the law, which could get tougher if it continues to experience problems, but easier if it works and coverage continues to expand.

Pundits will probably see this new messaging as a kind of political “lemons to lemonade” play. And to be sure, many Dems remain nervous about what the law will do to their prospects. But the new push from Dems is also about recasting the meta-pundit debate over Obamacare — it’s an effort to persuade the commentariat that while Obamacare may be unpopular, the GOP repeal stance is a liability, too.

As 2012 illustrated, getting commentators to view the debate over a major political albatross (whether it’s the economy or Obamacare) as a “choice” rather than a “referendum” is not easy. But as 2012 also illustrated, voters don’t always view things in the same terms the pundits do.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.