No, Dems are not uniformly running away from Obamacare

Mary Landrieu is one of the most vulnerable Senate Democratic incumbents, and her difficult reelection challenges — like those of other endangered Dems – are said to be all about Obamacare.

So it’s curious that Senator Landrieu is aggressively campaigning for a major piece of the law that’s dragging her down: the Medicaid expansion currently being debated in her state. Dems there hope  to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to get around Governor Bobby Jindal’s opposition that would ask Louisiana voters if they want billions in Medicaid expansion money to cover hundreds of thousands.

Getting it on the ballot is a long shot — it would require two thirds of both houses of the legislature — but the fact is that Landrieu held a conference call last week with local media to push the idea.  She has met with state editorial boards to advocate for the expansion, winning a positive editorial in the Times-Picayune. She’s going out with an email to her campaign list urging the constitutional amendment and slamming the “Jindal gap,” i.e., the Medicaid gap. She’ll hit opponent Bill Cassidy over the issue. Landrieu greeted the recent news of high signups by saying that the ACA “holds great promise and is getting stronger every day.”

All of this is not to say that Dems are running aggressively on Obamacare. They aren’t. But the widespread claim that they are uniformly running away from it is too simplistic. It’s more complicated than that.

In a good piece, NBC’s First Read crew suggests Dems should run squarely on the law:

Democrats now face this choice ahead of the November midterm elections: Do they ignore health care (and focus instead on women’s rights and the minimum wage)? Or do they fight back on health care with everything they’ve got? The former approach might be a long-term loser for the party…instead of running away, what if they fought back — especially on social/economic policy they already believe in and voted for?

Fair point, but this frames the question as zero sum — either Dems are campaigning wholeheartedly on the law or they are scurrying away from it. While no Dems are running a full campaign centered on Obamacare, some are standing up for the law as good social policy, whose goals they believe in, and are lambasting the GOP repeal stance. There’s the example of Landrieu above. In Michigan, Gary Peters has defended Obaamcare in moral terms and attacked GOP foe Terri Lynn Land for wanting to do away with the Medicaid expansion benefitting hundreds of thousands. In response, Land has mumbled nice things about the expansion while refusing to clarify her position on it.

In North Carolina, Kay Hagan is airing a radio ad that hits likely GOP foe Thom Tillis over his equivocations on repeal, and she will hit his opposition to the state exchange and Medicaid expansion to build the case that he is anti-middle class. In Alaska, Dems have run an ad for Mark Begich that features a woman discussing how she benefitted from the law in unusually personal terms. Dem Super PACs have run ads in North Carolina and Michigan dramatizing how the GOP repeal stance would take the law’s benefits away.

Yet too often, the Dem partywide stance is summed up as Joe Scarborough did in this tweet: “If Democrats believe the ACA is good for Americans, then why aren’t they talking about it?”

Now, it is true that some Dem Senate candidates don’t go out of their way to engage on the law. But in these cases, the strategy is more nuanced than is commonly appreciated. Alison Lundergan Grimes is not engaging on it, but she has condemned repeal and stood up for the goal of expanding coverage to hundreds of thousands in Kentucky (mindful that the state exchange there has been a success). And as Dylan Scott points out, Michelle Nunn has called for fixing the law but voices support for most of its policy goals.

Would Dems prefer it if Obamacare were more popular, enabling them to campaign hard on it? Has public opinion on it been slower to turn around than many supporters predicted? Yes, and yes. But imagine if we applied the same standards to GOP candidates. In many polls the stance held by every GOP candidate — repeal — is less popular than the law itself. Meanwhile, Tillis has equivocated hilariously on what he would replace the law with, while Land has been joined by Scott Brown and even Tom Cotton in Arkansas in pulling a homina homina homina on the Medicaid expansions in their states. Why isn’t one of the big stories here that Republicans are running away from their unpopular repeal stance?

Easy: Because Dems are at risk of losing the Senate, everything is viewed through a “Dems on defense” lens. But that is more because of the makeup of the map than anything else. If we are going to accurately gauge how the politics of Obamacare in particular are playing, the details should matter.

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UPDATE: One other key distinction worth making: It’s true, as I wrote the other day, that Dems do want many of these races to be about local issues and the candidates, and less about Obamacare. But even in those races the Dem candidate will talk to some degree about health care and attack the GOP repeal stance over it. The notion that they’re all bolting away from the law as fast as possible is really a distortion.

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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