The Washington Post

Obamacare and the death of ‘issues’ in politics

It used to be that candidates had a section of their Web sites called "Issues," where they articulated their positions on key policy matters. Such certainty seems to have fallen out of vogue, perhaps because the minute-to-minute nature of modern politics doesn't exactly reward it.

Via Chris McDaniel for United States Senate (YouTube)

Last week, Cook Political Report's Elizabeth Wilner outlined an apparent shift in how conservatives are talking about Obamacare. The key marketing message used to be "repeal." But with the program's surprising enrollment success and polling indicating that voters prefer fixing the program to rolling it back entirely, that position has been moderated. Wilner pointed to a series of ads by the Chamber of Commerce (collected by Slate's Dave Weigel) that use softer language in advocating for particular candidates.

The Chamber ads, though, are independent of the campaigns, meaning that their spots amount to one candidate making one consistent messaging pitch. Weigel points to an ad from Chamber-backed candidate Stewart Mills, running for the House in Minnesota; Mills's new ad, which is from his campaign, advocates replacing Obamacare. But Mills has, in the past, strongly advocated for repeal, including putting up a Web site called StopObamacare.MN.

So what is Mills's position, exactly? His nicely-designed Web site doesn't directly offer his position on Obamacare — or anything else. Instead, it links to Facebook posts and news articles, including one from January about repealing and replacing Obamacare. But that's in the reporter's words, not his. Mills's positions take a surprising amount of digging to find.

Many voters wait until shortly before casting their votes to review endorsements, candidate literature and Web sites. (And many never do anything of the sort.) For candidates, who often hire expensive consultants to package them with this behavior in mind, this means that it's worth not being overly explicit on your Web site.

A quick review of the Web sites for senators for are hoping to be reelected this year bolsters the idea that defined "Issues" pages are less common.

Candidate 2008 "Issues" page? 2012?
Mark Begich (D-Alaska) Yes No, "Priorities"
Susan Collins (R-Maine) No No
John Cornyn (R-Texas) Yes Yes
Al Franken (D-Minn.) Unknown Yes
Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) Yes No
Mary Landrieu (D-La.) Yes No
Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) Unknown No
Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) Yes No
Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) Yes Yes
Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) Unknown No, "Priorities"
Mark Udall (D-Colo.) Yes No
Mark Warner (D-Va.) Yes Yes

Some replaced "Issues" with "Priorities." Others just dropped them entirely. It's a small sample size, but there appears to be one thread linking those who don't use an "Issues" page: They're in contested reelection campaigns.

Several prominent Republican candidates haven't moved away from the repeal verbiage. In a new ad in his primary challenge to Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), state Sen. Chris McDaniel strongly advocates repeal. Thom Tillis, who will face Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) in November, still talks about fighting "for full repeal of ObamaCare." So does Ben Sasse, who is expected to win Nebraska's Senate general election handily. Sasse and McDaniel have "Issues" pages. Tillis, whose verbiage dates to before the contested Republican primary in his state, offers his position on his "Meet Thom" page.

The downside is obvious. Monica Wehby, running for the Senate from Oregon, has been charged with having changed her position on the issue. (Wehby has an "Issues" page, for what it's worth.) Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made news last week when arguing that his support for Obamacare repeal wouldn't affect the successful exchange in his home state.

Now, we're only talking about rhetoric here. Wilner's point about the Chamber was about how candidates (Democratic and Republican) were trying to figure out how to talk about Obamacare, not changing how they actually feel about it.

The moral: If you're a voter looking to figure out where elected officials stand on Obamacare, it's not always easy. If you're a politician looking to moderate your rhetoric on Obamacare (or anything else), the less you've said about it publicly, the better. Including on your Web site.


Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He is based in New York City.

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