The night Democrats reclaimed “Obamacare”

September 4, 2012

There's been a major development in health-care politics over the last few months. The Obama administration and the Republicans came to an agreement on health reform. Not the law itself -- they’re still at each other’s throats over that. But they finally agree on how to refer to it. Nowadays, both sides are calling it Obamacare. And during the first night of the Democratic National Convention, the Democrats talked about Obamacare. A lot.

That was, in itself, a surprise. Obamacare -- or, as it's officially called, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act -- doesn't poll particularly well, and it's believed to have been a key contributor to the Republican victory in 2010. But Democrats appear to think that the politics have changed. Indeed, if the first night of the Democratic Convention is to be remembered for anything aside from Michelle Obama's speech, it will probably be remembered as the night that Democrats stood up and began fighting for their health-care law.


Michelle Obama and the Democrats doubled down on "Obamacare." (Jae C. Hong/AP)

“Governor Romney says people like me were the most excited about President Obama the day we voted for him,” said Stacey Lihn, whose daughter was born with a congenital heart defect. “But that's not true. Not even close. For me, there was the day the Affordable Care Act passed and I no longer had to worry about Zoe getting the care she needed. There was the day the letter arrived from the insurance company, saying that our daughter's lifetime cap had been lifted.”

Lihn wasn't shy about the stakes for her family. "Governor Romney repealing health care reform is something we worry about literally every day," she said. "Zoe's third open-heart surgery will happen either next year or the year after. If Mitt Romney becomes president and Obamacare is repealed, there's a good chance she'll hit her lifetime cap."

Michelle Obama, in the featured speech of the night, also emphasized the Affordable Care Act. “When it comes to the health of our families, Barack refused to listen to all those folks who told him to leave health reform for another day, another president,” she said. “He didn’t care whether it was the easy thing to do politically – that’s not how he was raised – he cared that it was the right thing to do.”

The fact that Democrats even have the opportunity to take ownership of a health-care reform law is, in a way, a surprise. In 2006, it seemed entirely possible that Mitt Romney was going to take health care away from the Democrats as an issue.

After all, here was the first working, near-universal health-care system in any state in the union, and it was by a Republican governor who was planning a run for president. Handicapping the race in April 2006, David Broder wrote that Romney’s “health plan gives him a unique calling card.”

Endorsing Romney in January 2007, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) said, “he has demonstrated, when he stepped into government in a very difficult state, that he could work in a difficult partisan environment, take some good conservative ideas, like private health insurance, and apply them to the need to have everyone insured. Those kind of ideas show an ability to bring people together that we haven’t seen in national politics for a while.”

Fast forward a year and Romney had already dropped his health-care plan, to the dismay of some Republicans. “Romney has distanced himself from his own innovative Massachusetts health-care reform,” wrote Michael Gerson, “fearful that his hidden virtues of creativity and bipartisanship might be exposed in public.”

But if Republicans weren’t rallying around Romney’s plan, at least they were rallying around some plans. The initial version of Rep. Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap” included an ambitious health-care reform proposal that would have wiped out the tax exclusion for employer-provided health insurance and replaced it with a refundable tax credit for all Americans. A year later, when his Roadmap became the central legislative priority of House Republicans, he dropped the health-reform proposal from the budget.

Republicans have almost entirely ceded the field on health care to Democrats. They ran in 2010 on “repeal-and-replace,” but they’ve never figured out a replacement. Romney has a "health care" section on his web site, but it's so vague that it's impossible to say what he actually intends to do.

So far, that’s served them well. It’s allowed them to attack the Democrats’ Affordable Care Act without opening themselves up to criticism on the specifics of their plan. But it’s also meant that they don’t have specific answers for the health-care crisis. They don't have anything to tell Stacey Lihn. That’s left an opening for the Democrats -- an opening that, for the first time, they seem intent on taking.

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