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Memo to Dems: Don’t fall into GOP’s Obamacare trap

Today, House Democrats were privately briefed by Obama administration officials on the problems plaguing the Obamacare rollout. Buzzfeed reports that House Dems emerged from the meeting cautiously optimistic that the problems will get fixed:

“We’ve got technological problems. I wont even call them glitches, but we have a major team working on it. The administration recognizes the seriousness of it. We feel comfortable about fixing it,” said Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee. “The good news is that everyone in there was extremely upbeat.”
Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern echoed those comments, saying that the meeting was “encouraging.” “They’re working on the problems, people are enrolling, and that’s a good thing,” he said.

Those are Dems in safe seats, so this isn’t a hard position for them to adopt. Meanwhile, one Dem in a swing district — Rep. Patrick Murphy of Florida — took a bit of a tougher line:

“This is something we need to look into to find out why and how this happened. Needless to say it should have never gotten to this. People were obviously going to be going to the website. I don’t know why it has ever gotten to this point,” he said. “They were confident they can get it fixed, but everyone is still hesitant considering how much time they had to get it ready and it wasn’t ready.”

Meanwhile, earlier today GOP operatives pounced when another Dem, Rep. Bill Pascrell, suggested that if the problems persist, a delay in the individual mandate should be considered.

Obamacare’s rollout problems are awful and there should be accountability for them. And as I’ve noted here before, if they do persist for many weeks, it may well badly undermine the Dem message that the GOP has lost the ability to govern.

But in the short term, Dems should resist the temptation to run away from the law.

This isn’t to say Democrats should not criticize ongoing problems and hold the administration accountable for them. Dems absolutely should. But surely there is a way to do that without falling into the “Dems in disarray” narrative Republicans are hoping for, in which vulnerable Dems up for reelection in 2014 scurry away from the law en masse. There is a way to give voice to a “keep and fix” message that offers frank criticism of what is going wrong while standing firmly behind the law’s overall goals as worth continuing to fight for, larger than the web site problems, and far superior to the GOP alternative, which isn’t actually an alternative at all.

Dems should keep in mind that the polling is very clear on several points. First, support for the law has only inched upwards in multiple polls, as Steve Benen’s chart shows. Second, public opinion on health reform much more complicated and nuanced than Republicans claim.

This week’s Post/ABC poll showed very clearly that widespread public belief that Obamacare’s problems are very serious does not translate into support for the GOP argument that it’s time to scrap the law. It found that 56 percent think the law’s problems run deeper than just the web site, and that 54 percent oppose it. But a portion of that second bloc opposes the law because it doesn’t go far enough. What’s more, opponents of the law are divided on repeal — which is only supported by one in three Americans –with the result that a total of 66 percent either support the law or oppose it but want it to go forward, anyway.

In other words, while majorities think the problems are very serious and disapprove of the law, an even bigger majority wants to give the law a chance.

As GOP pollster Bill McInturff has noted, Republicans who believe disapproval of Obamacare translates into support for the party’s tactics against the law are over-interpreting the polls. Memories of the most destructive manifestation of those tactics we’ve seen yet — the shutdown and debt limit crises — are fresh in the public mind. The WaPo poll also found that only one in five Americans — including only 15 percent of independents, 18 percent of moderates, and 24 percent of seniors — think Republicans are “interested in doing what’s best for the country.” That suggests the middle of the country takes a very dim view of the GOP commitment to constructive governing right now.

If Obamacare’s problems drag on for many weeks, it will likely be terrible politics for Dems. But in the short term, let’s hope they keep in mind what the polls are really telling us.


UPDATE: Dem Rep. Joe Crowley gets the message right:

“It’s also not just about a website: Health insurance is about health security for millions and millions of Americans who heretofore have not had the ability to afford health insurance. Under the Affordable Care Act, that’s about to change for them. Republicans are looking for problems to exploit, we Democrats are looking for problems to fix and to find solutions for.”