Democrats Still Don't Own the Health Care Issue

Stacey Lihn at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. (National Journal)

Democrats, who have struggled for more than two years to fend off Republican attacks on health care reform, got off to a faltering start at using their national convention to mount a strong defense of the signature legislative accomplishment of President Obama's first term.

It is not that the subject didn't come up. PolicyMic, an online news service aimed at youth, counted mentions of the Affordable Care Act in 18 speeches on the first night. But not one speaker took on the criticism of the law or tried to rebut the key Republican talking points that Democrats have failed to quash in the 896 days since a Congress split along party lines passed it.

Only one speaker — Stacy Lihn, the Arizona mother of a sick child — talked at any length about the law and was specific about benefits on Tuesday night. She credited the law with "saving my daughter's life." But her pitch was buried in the 8-9 p.m. hour, when few were watching. That was two hours later than the video where Ryan Case spoke emotionally about losing both his parents to health issues left untreated because they lacked insurance.

Other speakers were content to just cast health care reform as a first-term success, as if this was an accepted fact to all Americans, even though polls show the country badly split on the matter. Former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine was the most succinct: "He said he'd pass health care reform, and he did." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was more combative, saying, "Some said he couldn't take on the insurance companies that were ripping us off. But President Obama made the tough and right call to save lives, save Medicare, and ensure no one goes broke just because they get sick."

The longest prime-time pitch, Michelle Obama's, was not designed to take on the policy critics. She used the law to illustrate her husband's courage, saying, "Barack refused to listen to all those folks who told him to leave health reform for another day, another president."

Missing after the first night was any effective counterattack on Republicans who have unrelentingly labeled the law a government takeover of the health care system, an assault on current health insurance plans, and a budget-busting, deficit-growing, Medicare-threatening obstacle to good health care.

Republican pollster Frank Luntz praised the Charlotte convention for a good start. "But," he pointedly added, "not on health care." He said Democrats need to devote "at least two minutes, if not more, to it, and they have to address the criticism" rather than ignore it.  "You want to take the issue off the table, and the way you take it off is to explain."

Democrats don't often agree with Luntz. But Ohio's Sen. Sherrod Brown says he refuses to be defensive about the law and wishes all Democrats would be as strong in defending it. "I'm not apologetic," said Brown, who is locked in a tough reelection battle. "We're going to have to start putting them on the defensive."

Brad Woodhouse, communications director for the Democratic National Committee, urged skeptics to wait until the convention is over before concluding that the opportunity was missed. "We're proudly promoting the Affordable Care Act of President Obama, which they've tried to skewer us on," he said.

Bill Schneider, a senior fellow at Third Way, a Washington think tank of moderate Democrats, said that the caution is explained by the polls. "The public still has big doubts about the new law," he said on Wednesday. "Before the law passed in 2010, the public was divided but tilted negative. And now? The public is divided and tilting negative."