C'mon, can't we stick to Obamacare? (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
C’mon, can’t we stick to Obamacare? (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

One of the more dispiriting GOP talking points of the moment is the ubiquitous claim that Dems are pushing for an extension to unemployment benefits solely to distract from Obamacare. This claim — which can be also applied to the minimum wage, or any other Democratic policy, for that matter — is widely heard from diehard conservative Republicans and from denizens of the Conservative Entertainment Complex.

But it’s particularly jarring when Republicans in more moderate districts employ it. Here, for instance, is GOP Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, commenting on yesterday’s Senate passage of cloture for an unemployment benefits extension, in a local radio interview flagged for me by a Democrat:

“This isn’t a surprise to many that the temporary extension of unemployment benefits is going to expire. I think the administration is trying to utilize it to try to take a lot of the focus off of the disaster of Obamacare. But it’s an issue that needs to be dealt with. What the American people want is they want to make sure that those who are unemployed and need help get help.”

After agreeing that extending unemployment benefits is a legitimate goal that must be “dealt with” – one, however, that Dems are only pursuing to distract from Obamacare — Davis goes on to insist that it must be paid for by spending cuts elsewhere.

Davis’ district, Illinois’ 13th, is ranked by National Journal as the 16th most likely to flip. National Journal notes that his 2012 victory was the closest one Dems lost, and that he is facing a potentially stronger challenge this time from a former judge.

Meanwhile, Scott Walker — a leading GOP reform type – has this to say about unemployment benefits: “the reason why the White House is so actively pushing this is they want to desperately talk about anything but Obamacare.”

The unemployment rate in Davis’ state of Illinois is 8.7 percent. Republicans are the ones placing conditions on an extension, and Dems aren’t. But the Dem position, somehow, is only about distracting from Obamacare. Yet top Republicans in both houses of Congress actually are connecting the debate over unemployment benefits to the Affordable Care Act. John Boehner’s most recent statement on UI reiterated the demand to “get rid of the president’s health care law,” and Mitch McConnell has called for a one year delay to the mandate in connection with UI.

The larger story is that there is a kind of meta-battle underway over the relationship between the political war over Obamacare and the political war over the economy. It’s true Dems are trying to shift the conversation about the health law to a broader one over how to help struggling working and middle class Americans, defending its expansion of coverage as only one of a broader range of policies designed to do that. But far from using unemployment insurance and the minimum wage to “distract” from Obamacare, they want a debate over the health law — and over those policies — in that broader economic context.

Republicans ostensibly agree we should extend unemployment benefits, yet they are the ones placing obstacles in the path of doing that, and Dems aren’t. This ostensible agreement with the Dems’ policy goal on UI presents a problem, since Republicans want to portray all Dem policies as crushing the economy under the boot of government. So they link Obamacare-as-job-killer to the debate, in hopes of vaguely tainting the Dem position with the aura of Big Gummint Liberalism.

I get that Republicans never pass up an opportunity to stoke the base’s anti-Obamacare fervor. But does anyone else — particularly moderates and independents – hear this kind of stuff as anything other than white noise?

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