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How Democrats can flip the script on Obamacare

Democratic strategist Paul Begala has some advice for Dems who are worried about their “messaging” on Obamacare after the special election loss: Stop being so damn defensive about the law and show people it’s worth fighting for, already.

“We should flip the wording of how we talk about Obamacare,” Begala told me today. “Open on offense, instead of on defense.”

Begala’s advice is rooted in a clear eyed assessment of the real Obamacare problem Dems face. It isn’t just that the law is unpopular with swing voters — yes, disapproval is running high, but repeal is also unpopular, which offers a way to fight disapproval to a draw. The more pressing problem is that Obamacare revs up the GOP base — worsening the “midterm falloff” turnout problem already present in non-presidential years — but it doesn’t excite the Dem base anywhere near enough to offset that problem.

To be clear, that is a very serious issue. But Begala thinks Dems can address it with a simple flipping of the script. Dems now debating how to talk about Obamacare seem to be leading defensively with their willingness to fix the law. Instead, Begala says, they should lead with an attack on Republicans that is framed as a medical rights issue — before pivoting to fixing the law — and then wrap it all up in a larger message about how Republicans have no answers to people’s health care or economic problems.

“We should open by saying, ‘my opponent wants to repeal your rights,'” Begala said. “He wants to take away your right to be protected against discrimination because you have a preexisting condition. He wants to take away your right to be protected against discrimination for being older or being a woman. He wants to take away the closing of the Medicare donut hole for seniors.”

“That’s point one,” he continued. “Then you say, ‘look, I’m open to working with everybody to fix the law. But I’ll never let them go back to the days where insurance companies could send letters saying your coverage has been canceled because you have a preexisting condition.'”

And then from there to an economic message: “Repeal is their whole agenda. They have no ideas for giving you a pay raise. No ideas for raising the minimum wage. No ideas about how to create jobs. No ideas about how to get your kid into pre-K. Their entire agenda as a party is repeal — to take away rights that you have won. I’m not going to let them do that.”

“We can win on Obamacare, but we have to fight,” Begala concluded. “You cannot win if you do not fight.”

This, Begala notes, is how you address both problems Dems face: The continued disapproval of the law, but more crucially, the fact that it excites the Republican base far more than the Democratic base, potentially making the “midterm drop-off” even worse. By fighting hard for the law — and, crucially, wrapping it up in a populist economic message — Dems can hopefully gin up their voters, addressing the more urgent problem, while also going on offense in a way that will put Republicans on defense on repeal to fight disapproval to a draw. The notion that the GOP repeal stance can be turned into a liability is not broadly accepted, and will seem even more far-fetched in the wake of the FL-13 outcome.

But here’s something worth watching. If FL-13 means the GOP has struck political gold, will Republicans  — who had been increasingly inclined to embrace an alternative — fall back more heavily on just repeal? Or will they continue to project an awareness that they need an alternative?

Even Karl Rove admitted this week that the lessons of FL-13 are mixed. Dem Alex Sink, he said, actually minimized losses by attacking Republican David Jolly’s repeal stance (though not as aggressively as Begala advocates). Rove added Jolly needed to embrace unspecified alternatives to win, suggesting repeal is not a winner. Meanwhile, even after FL-13, Paul Ryan has continued to insist Republicans will vote on a repeal plan, but in pieces. As Jonathan Chait explains, keeping things vague and piecemeal is central to making the GOP “repeal and replace” message viable:

The lack of a single alternative bill is the entire key to making this work. It allows Republicans to avoid being pinned down to the trade-offs inherent in any proposal. Simply repealing Obamacare is really unpopular, so they don’t want to be for that. So they need to be for something, but any particular alternative is going to have unpopular stuff in it – bills that will raise taxes on people with employer-sponsored insurance, or let insurance companies jack up prices on people with preexisting conditions, or charge more to women, and on and on. Having a bunch of alternative plans lets candidates pick and choose whatever pieces of any given alternative they want to emphasize at any time without advocating the whole.

The public likes keeping the parts of Obamacare where they get money, and opposes the parts where they pay money. In other words, Obamacare, politically, is becoming like just about every other government program.

There are already examples of this. The GOP Senate candidate in North Carolina says that of course Republicans would replace Obamacare with something or other that would accomplish the good things in the law. The pro-repeal GOP Senate candidate in Michigan is making nice noises about the Medicaid expansion there, which is set to cover 500,000 people.

To be clear, this dance could work for Republicans, given how bad the fundamentals are for Dems. But if Begala is right, aggressively attacking Republicans over Obamacare, and fighting for the law rather than just defending it, will make the GOP strategy of keeping “replace” vague harder to sustain. And it will gin up the Dem base — addressing the Democrats’ most pressing Obamacare problem.


UPDATE: In response to the above, David Axelrod emails:

I thoroughly agree.

It’s a losing strategy to cower and run, and there is no reason why Democrats should.  But it requires making the GOP defend the specific items they would be repealing, many of which are far more popular than the law itself.

I also agree with Karl Rove that if the Republicans simply count on a repeal Obamacare message this year, they will fall short.

The Rove piece Axelrod is referencing is right here.