It seems like just yesterday that Democratic congressional leadership and media water-carriers were vowing that incumbent Democrats in 2014 would “run on Obamacare.” That dubious proposition (given high disapproval of the law and well-known problems with the program) was impossible to sustain. As Karl Rove observes, “Now Democrats are circulating a new strategy memo . . . advising candidates to distance themselves from the law. The new line is that it’s a waste of time to repeal ObamaCare, Democrats are committed ‘to fixing and improving the law,’ and Republicans want to go back to the bad-old days.”
There are a whole bunch of problems with this most recent scramble to save the Senate majority:
1. Democrats have opposed in lock-step every change or delay that Republicans have offered (e.g. repeal or suspension of the individual mandate, prohibition on insurance company bailouts, relief from the medical-device tax). It’s hard to declare Obamacare “the law of the land,” block serious consideration of changes and then concede it needs changing.
2. Why did they vote for the law in its current state? Maybe they were hoodwinked by the president’s promises that it would be a pro-growth, pro-jobs reform, or maybe they just didn’t read the law before voting on it. In either case, it’s an admission of legislative negligence.
3. What could possibly fix problems such as low enrollment by young people, worse coverage for those whose policies were canceled and the departure of many providers and hospitals from plans in the exchanges? The problems are so fundamental that they require a full reworking of the law, at the very least.
4. Democrats don’t have any real proposals to fix Obamacare. Turning around their barb against Republicans, where is their Obamacare alternative?
5. Defending a program that encourages people not to work because they can get subsidized health care paid for by hard-working people is a dead-bang loser.
6. It doesn’t address misrepresentation, echoed by many lawmakers on the ballot, that you would get to keep your doctor and your health-care plan.
7. In a midterm election, many more people who either were harmed by or got no benefit from Obamacare than people who got insurance for the first time will be voting. Overall, the victims (people being cut back to part-time, paying more for insurance, losing a favorite doctor, experiencing a tax hike, etc.) are beginning to outweigh the beneficiaries. (It is not clear how many of the few million who signed up through the exchanges were previously uninsured.) Unless the Democrats can drastically change the composition of the electorate, the historically more conservative midterm voters will have a large contingent of Obamacare haters.
8. If Obamacare needs to be fixed, it was unreasonable for them to countenance a shutdown on the grounds Obamacare was inviolable.
9. The experience of Obamacare, the stimulus and Obama’s serial scandals and mismanagement of the federal government have further soured voters on the idea of huge programs that centralize power in Washington, D.C.
10. If — a big if — Republicans can offer an alternative that still addresses popular concerns (e.g. preexisting illnesses, allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ plans, portability), Democrats will be back defending the Obamacare status quo.
What I really think you are going to see from Dems is a grab-bag of attacks (War on women!), recycled and failed ideas (more stimulus) and issues designed to ignite their base (e.g. inequality). Republicans would be wise to play to their own strengths (e.g. repeal and replace Obamacare, domestic energy development, education choice) and not get freaked out each time Bill Clinton comes into a state to try to carry a weak Democrat over the finish line. (By the way, if Hillary Clinton is such a political dynamo, why is no one in a swing state pleading for her to come help?)
We saw in the 2012 presidential election how easy it is for Democrats to come up with a faux scandal or “shiny object” (Sandra Fluke!) to distract the media and voters from their own dismal performance and flawed ideas. It is up to Republicans to keep Obamacare and the economy front and center. The Democrats really don’t have a good game plan for Obamacare, and I suspect they know it.