November 26, 2013

With Obamacare hurtling towards November 30th, the date the White House has set as a target for making the federal website functional, it should be possible to keep the following two ideas in our heads at the same time:

1) The health law’s rollout is a disaster that is currently hurting Dems and could have political repercussions for them in 2014; if its problems continue over time, it could prove a serious long term political fiasco for them.

2) The de facto GOP stance on Obamacare — repeal it, and go back to the old system – is also politically problematic, and could even prove a political loser in its own right, even if the law continues to poll badly.

The mere possibility that Number Two could prove to be a factor continues to go almost entirely overlooked by much of the political world. The Obamacare debate is widely treated as a zero sum game, in which blowback on Dems from the flawed rollout automatically translates into political gain for Republicans.

National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar weighs in today with a piece headlined: “Democrats fear Obamacare will cost them the Senate.” Kraushaar notes Dems are mostly sticking to the “keep and fix” approach I’ve talked about here. But he adds:

It’s an open question whether that political line will be sustainable if the health care exchange website is still dysfunctional heading into next year, and an older, sicker insurance pool could mean a “death spiral” of ballooning premiums for 2015. [...]

For Democrats, the politics of the health care law are creating a death spiral of their own. For the White House to protect its signature initiative, it needs to maintain a Democratic Senate majority past 2015. But to do so, Majority Leader Harry Reid needs to insulate vulnerable battleground-state Democrats, who are all too eager to propose their own fixes to the law that may be politically satisfying, but could undermine the fundamentals of the law.

I don’t know of any Obamacare proponent who would disagree with the first assertion. If the website is still a disaster into 2014, and even worse, if the law fails in the long run, then, yes, it will be deeply problematic for Democrats. What matters is whether the law works over time. It’s also true that red state Dems have been too quick to embrace politically expedient Obamacare “fixes,” and if that gets out of control, it could undermine the law. But in reality, despite the Beltway narrative to the contrary, Democrats are not yet running from the law in any meaningful way. It’s all but certain they will continue to defend the law’s overall goals and will attack Republicans for favoring getting rid of it entirely, casting the health care argument as a “choice,” not a referendum on Obamacare. Pundits scoffed at this idea in 2012, when the topic was the economy, but it worked out okay.

Kraushaar, to his credit, acknowledges repeal remains a minority position. But by and large, analysts refuse to take this basic fact of the polling to the next logical step, which is to ask whether the GOP position is actually a political liability of its own, and even more so, whether it will leave Republicans in a bad political position if the law does work moderately well in 2014. The Medicaid expansion is all but certain to continue expanding coverage. Enrollment in some states is proceeding apace. If the federal website gets fixed, you could see surges in enrollment in December and March, as experts predict. And Republicans will be left in the position of arguing implicitly that all those people should lose their benefits and that we should return to the old system, where people remained at risk of “financial and medical calamity.”

Maybe Republicans have an answer to why such a political outcome would not be a problem for them. But I suspect, as Paul Krugman does, that the rollout problems have only reinforced their absolute certainty that Obamacare’s Apocalyptic collapse is at hand, so alternate outcomes are not even being entertained. Still, it remains odd that this possibility is not even on the radar of many neutral analysts.

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* DEMS LOSE THEIR BALLOT EDGE: Related to the above: There is no question that the rollout problems have hurt Democrats. A new CNN poll finds that the big post-shutdown Dem advantage in the House ballot matchup has vanished in the wake of Obamacare’s awful rollout, with Republicans  now edging into the lead, 49-47. However, note this:

“It looks like the biggest shifts toward the Republicans came among white voters, higher-income Americans, and people who live in rural areas, while Democrats have gained strength in the past month among some of their natural constituencies, such as non-white voters and lower-income Americans,” said CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.

As I’ve noted here, core Dem constituencies are still sticking with the law, and this polling shows an improvement among them — another reason why Dems shouldn’t abandon the law. More broadly, the question is whether the law will work over time.

* MEDICAID EXPANSION IS POPULAR: A new Quinnipiac poll finds that a majority of Americans favor the Medicaid expansion, which GOP governor John Kasich embraced, angering the right. Indeed, while independents favor the expansion, Republicans oppose it overwhelmingly.

The question is whether Republicans will find themselves in a difficult political position in calling for repeal of the expansion if and when it continues nationwide.

* THE OBAMACARE SUCCESS STORIES YOU HAVEN’T BEEN HEARING: The Los Angeles Times’ Michael Hiltzik has a good piece reporting on people with preexisting conditions who have been rescued from the individual market by the new health law, the sort of stories you haven’t been hearing over the media din about people losing plans. Dems need do a better job getting these sorts of stories out there — if the law works over time, Republicans who are absolutely certain Obamacare is a long term winner for them could increasingly find themselves forced to explain why they would take these benefits away from such people.

* WHITE HOUSE SELLING OBAMACARE THROUGH LOCAL PRESS: Politico reports that the White House, frustrated with national coverage of the terrible Obamacare rollout, is increasingly trying to get the word out about the law’s success via local media:

In the past month, Obama and his Cabinet have hit nine of the top 10 cities with  the highest concentration of the uninsured, while senior administration  officials have held almost daily reporter conference calls in nearly a dozen  states to challenge Republican governors who refuse to expand Medicaid…The centerpiece of the local strategy is the White House’s campaign against  Republican governors or legislatures in 24 states that have declined to accept  federal money to open up Medicaid to 5.4 million people.

The Obama team has long believed local press is the way to reach independents, who could conceivably recoil at GOP rejection of the Medicaid expansion (see the above Q-poll in Ohio).

* DIPLOMACY AGAIN AT CENTER OF AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY: Mark Landler has an interesting look at how the Iran deal signals that Obama’s 2008 pledge to restore diplomacy and engagement to the center of foreign policy is now active, reflecting the “definitive end of the post-September 11th world.”

The piece suggests there are political challenges associated with getting the American public to support diplomacy, particularly with Congress balking. But I’d point out that Obama’s general approach is supported by 64 percent of Americans, suggesting the public is more than ready for this reorientation.

* AND DEM SENATORS TURN UP HEAT ON NSA SURVEILLANCE:  Senators Mark Udall, Ron Wyden, and Martin Heinrich publish a new piece calling on Congress to seriously crack down on NSA surveillance with reform that goes well beyond simply adding more transparency. This is an interesting tidbit:

The usefulness of the bulk collection program has been greatly exaggerated. We have yet to see any proof that it provides real, unique value in protecting national security. In spite of our repeated requests, the N.S.A. has not provided evidence of any instance when the agency used this program to review phone records that could not have been obtained using a regular court order or emergency authorization.

It’s worth noting that failure to reform NSA surveillance will, in a broad sense, stand as an area where Obama has failed to produce the national security reorientation he himself has described as a priority.

* AND WHERE’S THE GOP’S POVERTY AGENDA? Katrina vanden Heuvel makes a good point: Although that RNC “autopsy” proclaimed that the GOP must show it “cares about people,” the party has no poverty agenda to speak of, and continues to take its cues from Paul Ryan, whose fiscal blueprint would slash anti-poverty programs.

I’d only add: Where are Republicans on the coming battle over whether to extend unemployment insurance?

What else?

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