Why Democrats should run on Obamacare: A strategist lays out his case

Democrats should own Obamacare, not run away from it, because there's plenty there to love, says a veteran Democratic strategist. Even saying 'fix it, don't repeal it,' is too defensive. 

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
President Barack Obama participates in a town hall-style forum to encourage Latino Americans to enroll in Obamacare health insurance plans, at the Newseum in Washington March 6.

Democrats can’t run away from Obamacare. They own it. So in the spirit of “if you can’t beat it, join it,” Democrats might do best in the fall midterms by going on offense. And that means touting the popular aspects of the health-care law.

That, in a nutshell, is the argument of veteran Democratic strategist Robert Shrum, who sees a conventional wisdom setting in that Democrat Alex Sink lost a winnable special House election in Florida last week because of Obamacare. She argued for “fixing it, not repealing it.”

“The thing that worries me, especially after Florida, is that you’re going to see Democrats panic,” Mr. Shrum tells Politicalwire.com.

Shrum was reacting to a Politico piece that posited post-Florida “disarray” among Democrats over Obamacare: Some Democrats are criticizing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as not going far enough, and wishing they had gone for a Canadian-style “single payer” system. Others are rejecting the ACA altogether. The most common critique is Ms. Sink’s, that Obamacare contains many worthy features but needs to be tweaked.

Shrum sees a fourth way.

“Instead of running away from health reform, they have to run on it – in the right way,” he writes in The Daily Beast.

And the right way, he says, is to play up all the popular aspects of the law: barring insurers from denying coverage to unhealthy people; a ban on lifetime limits; a ban on charging women more than men; allowing adult children up to age 26 to stay on their parents’ plan; and enhanced drug coverage for seniors.

The only problem with Shrum’s thesis is that we won’t know if he’s right until it’s too late, that is, after the election. And that assumes at least some Democrats are willing to campaign on Obamacare.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D) of Florida, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, didn’t quite go there Tuesday when she was asked at a press conference if the ACA would be an albatross around Democrats’ necks this fall. She laid out the popular parts of the law, then said, “I will take the difference between a Republican candidate who wants to take all that away from those folks, and Democratic candidates who think that those benefits should remain.”

Still, a mild consensus is forming among strategists in both parties that the Republican victory last week in Florida did not establish Obamacare as the magic bullet for the GOP this fall. David Plouffe, a former top adviser to President Obama, called the Florida loss a “screaming siren” – not because of Obamacare, but because Democrats were unable to motivate enough supporters to vote.

Karl Rove, President George W. Bush’s political guru, called Obamacare a “potent issue” that hurts Democrats, but isn’t sufficient on its own. Republican David Jolly won by putting Obamacare in a “larger frame,” urging voters to elect someone to be a check on Mr. Obama, he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. He said that argument cut well with independents.

“Mr. Jolly's success depended upon convincing them he would go to Washington to make things work, not to blow it up,” Mr. Rove wrote.

And what about Obama himself? Nationally, his job approval ratings are in the low 40s, and lower in the very states where struggling Democrats up for reelection can least afford any drag on their chances. History shows that vulnerable members of Congress are hard pressed to escape the shadow of an unpopular president from their own party.

In fact, in some cases, it could make sense for vulnerable Democrats to run toward Obama instead of away from him, says Nathan Gonzales of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. The president is still a rock star to many Democrats, and getting them energized by visiting their state or district could be a net positive.

“It’s something some Democrats are wrestling with – the question of, does the potential benefit of base turnout outweigh the consequences of alienating voters in the middle who don’t really like the direction the president is taking the country,” says Mr. Gonzales.  “I think it’s an open question right now.”

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