Dana Milbank
Opinion writer November 12, 2013

Two months ago, polls showed Democrat Kay Hagan leading prospective opponents by double digits in her quest for a second term representing North Carolina in the Senate.

So why is she so nervous?

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

Well, her problem begins with Obamacare, ends with Obamacare and has a whole lot of Obamacare in between.

Hagan hosted a conference call for reporters Tuesday morning to discuss the problems with the health-care law’s rollout, and the Q&A session was so painful that the senator should qualify for trauma coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

Fox News’s Jim Angle asked what she thought about the reports showing that only 50,000 Americans had enrolled in the health-care exchanges on HealthCare.gov.

“You know,” she replied. “I know the — I believe this coming Friday, those numbers are going to be published and uh, you know, as soon as I see them, you know, obviously it’s, it’s m-much fewer than the administration expected.”

A reporter from the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record asked why Hagan, like President Obama, had told people that if they liked their health plans they’d be able to keep their health plans.

There was a long pause before Hagan responded, then a deep intake of breath. “You know, Doug,” she responded, “the, um” — here she exhaled and paused again — “the way these, the — the regulations and the law, uh” — pause — “came forward recently, I think people were surprised that the, uh, the — the actual original plans would be, um, would be canceled.”

Another North Carolina reporter asked Hagan what she is telling constituents whose premiums have doubled or whose plans have been canceled.

Deep inhalation. “Well, a lot of people, I, I am encouraging everybody to go on the site, uh, uh, I — look through it, find out what the benefits are,” she began. She also said constituents could call her office, “and we will certainly, uh, do what we can to help those individuals and put them in contact, uh, with the right — with the right person, and, and, and help them.”

News reports about the law in Hagan’s home state have been brutal: businesses cutting workers’ hours, 160,000 people receiving cancellation notices, hardly anybody signing up for the health-care exchange.

Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, released a poll Tuesday showing that 69 percent of North Carolinians think the Obamacare rollout has been unsuccessful. Probably because of that, Hagan is now in a dead heat with would-be challengers. “Kay Hagan on the ropes,” the conservative National Review exulted.

That goes too far; there’s a year until the election, and a challenger to Hagan has yet to emerge from the Republican pack. Just a month ago, when the government shutdown was dominating the news, it looked as though Democrats could make gains in the 2014 midterms — and more such swings are likely.

But Hagan’s reversal of fortune — and similar troubles for other vulnerable Senate Democrats such as Mary Landrieu (La.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.) — should make it clearer than ever to the White House that the administration must put everything it has into salvaging the health-care rollout before it undoes congressional Democrats and the Obama presidency. If the administration can get its top priority so wrong, Republicans will say that the president’s party doesn’t deserve to govern, and they will have a point.

For now, all Hagan can do is wait and hope. The official purpose of Tuesday’s conference call was to announce her efforts to fix the Obamacare launch, but the efforts don’t amount to much: she “asked the administration” to postpone the sign-up deadline (let’s hope she asked nicely); she plans to send a letter (a sternly worded one, no doubt) requesting investigations into the contractors; and she’s adding her name to legislation reinstating canceled plans.

But would the Senate Democratic leadership allow such a bill to be considered? Hagan ignored the question. How can the government force insurers to offer the old plans? Long pause. Deep breath. “Well, that’s what this bill does, and we will work through that process,” was her entire response.

Should Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius keep her job? “You know,” Hagan replied, “I think what we need to do is we need to look at the, at the — what these contracts said, what these contracts, uh, will actually show and that’s why I think getting the general, uh, um, the GAO to do this as well as the, uh, the HHS, so we can see these contracts and, you know, I think w — w — you know, once I’ve rec — once I’m able to look at this accountability, um, then I, you know, uh, then I’ll be able to, uh, make a better determination.”

Maybe somebody should call a doctor.

Twitter: @Milbank

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