The worst headline for Democrats this year

Here's the headline of the Washington Post's writeup of a new Congressional Budget Office report on the Affordable Care Act: "CBO: Botched health-care law rollout will reduce sign-ups by 1 million people."


This December 2, 2013 file photo shows a woman reading the HealthCare.gov insurance marketplace internet site in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO / Karen BLEIER

Ouch. According to the CBO report, the problems with HealthCare.gov late last year will reduce sign-ups for the law from 7 million to 6 million. But, wait, it gets worse for Democrats. Writes WaPo's Zach Goldfarb:

The Affordable Care Act will also reduce the number of fulltime workers by more than 2 million in coming years, congressional budget analysts said in the most detailed analysis of the law’s impact on jobs. The CBO said the law’s impact on jobs would be mostly felt starting after 2016. The agency previously estimated that the economy would have 800,000 fewer jobs as a result of the law.

Double ouch.

Close your eyes for a minute and fast forward to October. And imagine yourself sitting in a Charlotte hotel room watching TV. And this ad comes on: "Kay Hagan voted for Obamacare, a law whose rollout was so botched that a million people decided to not even sign up for health coverage. And the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office says Obamacare will cost America 2 million jobs. Kay Hagan voted wrong. Now it's time to vote her out." That's a VERY tough hit on any Democratic incumbent who voted for the Affordable Care Act.

Yes, of course, what's contained in the CBO report is more complicated than my faux ad. The 2 million figure is actually a decline in the labor supply, meaning people not putting themselves out into the workforce as opposed to 2 million jobs being eliminated. Here's the full explanation from the CBO report (brace yourself for some economic nerd-speak):

Although CBO projects that total employment (and compensation) will increase over the coming decade, that increase will be smaller than it would have been in the absence of the ACA. The decline in full time-equivalent employment stemming from the ACA will consist of some people not being employed at all and other people working fewer hours; however, CBO has not tried to quantify those two components of the overall effect. The estimated reduction stems almost entirely from a net decline in the amount of labor that workers choose to supply, rather than from a net drop in businesses’ demand for labor, so it will appear almost entirely as a reduction in labor force participation and in hours worked relative to what would have occurred otherwise rather than as an increase in unemployment (that is, more workers seeking but not finding jobs) or underemployment (such as part-time workers who would prefer to work more hours per week).

And, the CBO report also makes clear that while the technical problems surrounding the rollout of HealthCare.gov cost 1 million signups in the near term, it estimates that sign-ups will eventually catch up to previous estimates -- with 13 million people signing up by 2015 and 24 million by 2017.

Neither of those points, however, makes for an effective pushback in the context of a political campaign. Can you imagine trying to explain the CBO's characterization of the labor market due to the ACA in a 30 or 60 second ad? (You would need a Ross Perot 30-minute infomercial to do it.) Or insisting that while the botched rollout hurt sign-ups right now, everything is going to be better by 2017? Both are total political losers.

That ad I made up above will soon become a reality. Republicans have made quite clear that they will do everything they can to make the 2014 election a referendum on Obamacare and, more broadly, President Obama. And this CBO report gives them a major arrow in that quiver. Democrats need to find an effective response -- and fast.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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