Democrats in Denial Over Obamacare

Supporters of the health care law are convinced they can defend themselves on the issue. Don't bet on it.

For nearly three years, the Democratic approach to the political unpopularity of President Obama's health care law was denial. Deny it played a significant role in the party's historic midterm losses in 2010. Insist, in the face of contradictory evidence, that as more voters experienced the benefits of the law, the more popular it would become. Deny it would be a major issue at all in the 2014 midterms.

The latest version of the argument points to polling showing that voters don't want to repeal the law but prefer to see it fixed — perfectly in line with the newly adopted positions of vulnerable Democratic officeholders. In a memo leaked to the press, Democrats argue they can neutralize their health care vulnerabilities by promoting their desire to fix the law and blaming Republicans for intransigence in seeking a full repeal. But dig a bit deeper past the talking points, and it's unclear what they want to fix — beyond their broken poll numbers.

Indeed, in a sign that Democrats are stuck in neutral on their Obamacare messaging, the "news" from the memo is months old. The strategy devised by the sharpest party operatives has already been in effect in numerous ads across the country and was promoted by the party's top strategists two months ago. In those targeted races, public polling has shown Democratic standing worsening where the on-air Obamacare debate has already begun. (See: Landrieu, Mary; Hagan, Kay.)

The main reason 2014 is different than 2012 isn't the quality of the messaging. It's that the law is now a reality affecting millions of Americans — and more don't like the changes. The most important test on the ultimate success of the health care law will be whether voters think they're getting a better deal out of the law than not. And all available evidence, from polling to the government's cherry-picked enrollment data, suggests that supporters face a tough challenge making the sell.

The actual number of Americans who gained insurance through the law is much lower than the 3.3 million the White House is claiming. The numbers released by the Health and Human Services Department include many people with insurance who were forced out of their previous individual market plans onto the Obamacare exchanges. It also includes those who signed up but never paid for insurance — which makes up about one-fifth of those enrollees, according to a New York Times analysis.

For a crystal-clear sign of the political woes Obamacare faces, look no further than the ad the Democratic House Majority PAC is airing in a majority-Hispanic south Florida district that Obama carried twice. The seat, represented by freshman Rep. Joe Garcia, is one of a small handful in the country that gave Obama a larger share of the vote in 2012 than in 2008 — he won 53 percent last election. It's also one of the media markets where the Obama presidential campaign spent millions of dollars in Spanish-language ads praising the law in unequivocal terms.

This new ad, as part of the damage control, contains no such accolades. It promotes how Garcia "took the White House to task," referencing its "disastrous" health care website. Like its counterparts, it argues Garcia wants to fix the broken law. Democratic strategists said that outside of the most liberal precincts, they can't persuade people of the law's benefits until they acknowledge its problems first.

The Garcia ad shows that even in an Obamacare stronghold, where support for the law ran well ahead of its national numbers, dissatisfaction is creeping up. Indeed, The New York Times reported that uninsured Hispanics were signing up for the law at "strikingly" lower rates than anticipated. One Democratic operative involved in the race told me it was much harder to find nonpartisan Obamacare advocates to cheerlead for the law in South Florida this year — compared with 2012.

Pay close attention to next month's special election in a classic bellwether Florida district, where Republicans are seeking to nationalize the race on the health care law. By all accounts, Democrats have the stronger candidate — a former gubernatorial nominee (Alex Sink) versus a lobbyist (David Jolly). Outside groups have been pouring in millions, eager to make the race a referendum on Obamacare. If Sink wins, it will show that strong candidates can overcome a challenging national environment. But if Jolly wins, it'll be a clear sign of the potency of a nationalized message over the micro-factors that often determine races: candidate quality, fundraising strength, and get-out-the-vote skills, where the Democrats hold advantages.

One of the most trenchant criticisms of Republicans in 2012 is that they relied on "cookie-cutter" ads airing the same, stale anti-Obamacare message across the country. But this year, Republicans have a panoply of health care messages to work with — personalized appeals (such as the ads Americans for Prosperity have been airing), attacking Democrats over bailout money to insurance companies and hitting the double-standard between penalties for businesses and individuals, just to name a few. It's Democrats, from red-state Democrat Mary Landrieu to a blue-district Hispanic Democrat like Garcia, who have been airing ads that are strikingly similar in message.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that more voters support "fixing" something than repealing a law; as any professional wordsmith can tell you, it always sounds more constructive to fix something that's broken. But it doesn't address how voters dissatisfied with the health care law will act when given the choice between a lawmaker who voted for a broken law and a challenger with the freedom to run against it however he sees fit. (In fact, two red-state Democratic Senate candidates, Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky and Michelle Nunn in Georgia, have been able to ride above the Obamacare fray so far — because they didn't vote on it. )

All signs point to Republicans having a fruitful Election Day running against the president's health care law. The Senate map is expanding to states like Michigan, Iowa, and Virginia, while senators are losing traction in the red-state seats Democrats need to defend. It may be news that Democrats are doing what they can to mitigate the law's political damage, but it doesn't mean that those efforts will be able to stop the bleeding.

Democrats are now in the bargaining stage of Obamacare grief, but it's shaping up as a prelude to a November depression.

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