In the wake of Democrat Alex Sink's narrow loss in the special congressional election in Florida, POLITICO, which swiftly and often clearly crystallizes the conventional wisdom, described a "public split" among Democrats in "how to talk about Obamacare." A few think candidates should stake out more progressive ground, presumably chastising the party and the president for not passing something like single-payer. Others are cravenly ready to run against the Affordable Care Act. And still others will seek shelter in the strategy that was tried and failed for Sink-- the law shouldn't be repealed, but fixed.
All three reactions are tempting, simple, easy –- too much or not enough, and too often just plain wrong.
To begin with, Sink didn't lose because of Obamacare. She had a spending advantage, but a demographic disadvantage. Barack Obama barely carried the district in 2012 during a presidential year with high turnout. In the March special, the electorate was depressed, and its composition was decidedly more Republican. Moreover, Sink was not a stellar candidate, even against an opponent who was, of all things, a lobbyist and could have run on the slogan: "Remove the Middleman."
Nor was her core message likely to move Democrats and motivate turnout. Instead it was a pale carbon copy of Obama's 2008 pledge to reach across the aisle, an echo of a moment now long past in politics and in time. "Bringing Republicans and Democrats together" was her hallmark phrase.” The phrase may scored well in a poll-- who will say they don't favor it? But bringing the two sides together is by now a clichéd appeal that doesn't turn out voters.
As Karl Rove warned Republicans afterwards, it's dangerous to over – interpret a special election as a harbinger of midterm elections. He's right, and I don't generally write that. Even more, it's profoundly dangerous for Democrats to draw the conclusion that their only safe choices are to flee left or right on Obamacare – or just stay stuck in the middle.
Examine each of those obvious, even desperate options.
A lurch toward single-payer –-that the mistake was doing too little –- ignores the reality that the Affordable Care Act was the best, or most, the could have been squeezed through Congress –- and then only because of the legislative legerdemain of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who induced her unhappy colleagues to accept the Senate bill after Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts deprived Senate Democrats of the 60 votes needed to approve an amended version. Beyond this, is there any plausible evidence that the electorate is pining for the farther reach of single-payer? A lot of liberals favor it, and so do I--in principle. But to suddenly campaign for it would pre- concede likely defeat; it wouldn't be a political strategy worthy of the name. It would be a reflexive resort to ideological self-satisfaction. In essence, the argument would be both unconvincing and counterproductive: Elect us because we made a mistake.
Democrats who decide to campaign against Obamacare – we're against it after we were for it – are headed for at least as rocky a road. Last week, in a different context, I discussed the ahistoricism that infects our politics. And that ahistoricism is rampant here. This kind of swerve has been ventured before and it led to an electoral dead end.
In 1994, there were Democrats who conspicuously separated themselves from Bill Clinton, unpopular after the defeat of his health reform and plagued by a false perception of economic lethargy that lagged the reality of an accelerating recovery. On Election Day, these turncoats lost nonetheless. A prime example was Tennessee Representative Jim Cooper, who, after scorning Clinton's health plan for a more moderate proposal of his own, went down to a surprising defeat.
Several of the Democrats who survived – Chuck Robb in Virginia and Edward Kennedy, who faced the hardest race of his career against Mitt Romney – rejected the expedient of running against what they had previously supported. Robb, in a far more conservative era, in a state still more red than blue, not only refused to back away from his support for gays in the military; he openly and repeatedly defended it.
If the question this year is: Who's against Obama and Obamacare? Voters will prefer the real Republican to the ersatz one. That's what occurred in 1994. And perhaps with the exception of a few districts or a state or two, Democrats won't prosper, or survive, in 2014 by offering a choice between two Republican parties.
The third suggested alternative on Obamacare reprises Clinton's "mend it, don't end it" position on affirmative action; but he didn't campaign on that. It was fundamentally a defensive position. So too, without the benefit of a rhyme, is "fix it, don't repeal it." The public does agree with that position now, 64% to 34%, according to the latest Bloomberg poll. And the formulation will do okay as a debate answer, but not as the heart of a candidate's message and media, especially when the poll also shows that the opponents have the advantage of intensity.
Democrats have to stop allowing Republicans to define the election as an up or down vote on an abstraction called Obamacare. Instead of running away from health reform, they have to run on it -– in the right way. The key is to denominate the choice in terms of specific provisions of the law, which are overwhelmingly popular in survey after survey.
Pound away at a Republican candidate for proposing, and a Republican House incumbent for voting 51 times, to permit insurance companies to deny coverage for pre- existing conditions; 65% of Americans disagree with that in the Bloomberg data. Assail Republicans for opposing a ban on lifetime limits, so policies can't be canceled when patients are sickest and need them most; 53% of Americans support the ban. And go after Republicans for favoring or voting for a bill to deprive children up to the age of 26 of the chance to stay on their parents' health insurance policy. Here Democrats are in sync with 73% of the country.
Even the individual mandate elicits just narrow disapproval, 51% to 47%. Democrats can defend it, but it's imperative to go on offense by recognizing and actualizing the reality that the parts of health reform are more powerful politically than its sum.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the red battleground of Kentucky, where Governor Steve Beshear has defied Republicans as he relentlessly enrolls his citizens in Obamacare. As Election Day nears, Allison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic challenger, can attack Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell for plotting to abolish health coverage for 20% to 25% of the electorate. The race is close now, one of the closest in the nation.
Republicans like McConnell may discover that they're running the 2010 midterm four years too late. Or as Ted Cruz let slip during his faux filibuster, Republicans won't be able to repeal Obamacare once Americans are "addicted" to it. That's an ugly word to apply to a basic human right to health and life; but Cruz spoke, or misspoke, a basic truth.
Obamacare's numbers are getting better and better – in both public opinion and enrollments. Democrats have the specifics on their side. What they most have to fear is their own wimpiness –-or miscalculation. It would be self-delusion of the first order to assume health reform won't be a central issue in 2014. Democrats can't slink away, or crouch, or cut and run against their own record. But they can recast the contours of the contest; they can meet voters where they already are.
At times, strategy is necessity. This is a classic case of that. The best politics here is to be principled, nimble, and shrewd. The only way to win now is to be worthy of winning. As Ted Kennedy often said, "A great political party has to stand for something." Democrats have to recapture the midterm debate on health care by saying in concrete terms what they stand for – and Republicans stand against.