Will Proud and Loud on Obamacare Win the Race?

The only way to gauge the success of the law is by the Dems who outwardly support it and the Republicans who stop publicly attacking it.

04.24.14 9:45 AM ET

A couple of weeks ago, a super PAC supporting Alaska Democratic Senator Mark Begich started running this ad: It’s a very well done story of a “mother, a runner and a breast cancer survivor” who credits Senator Begich for helping her get insurance which she had been previously denied because of a pre-existing condition. “Mark Begich fought the insurance companies, so we don’t have to,” the spot concludes.

The ad was hailed as proof that “that Democrats—including those in red states—are not running away from the law (Obamacare) as their Republican opponents claim,” as the Huffington Post put it. “Dem’s Run On, Not From, The ACA” excitedly heralded the Rachel Maddow Blog, touting the ad. “This Is What An Unabashedly Pro-Obamacare Looks Like” shouted Talking Points Memo.

Ironically, that may very well be true. The Begich ad is an “unabashedly pro-Obamacre Ad” that doesn’t mention Obamacare or the ACA. Or President Obama. Or the Democratic Party. There is no way of knowing that the action it refers to is connected in any way with Obamacare. The ad is modeled in the genre of “constituent service” advertising, one of the most reliable for incumbents: This person had a problem (usually with large bureaucracies, like the VA, Social Security Administration, a large employer, insurance giants) and Senator or Congressman X intervened to help.

It’s an exceptionally well-crafted ad, and I imagine it will help raise Senator Begich’s favorable image. Not surprisingly, it focuses on what is consistently the most popular aspect of Obamacare, a ban on pre-existing conditions used to block insurance. This is one aspect of Obamacare that both Republicans and Democrats support in overwhelming numbers and some variation is included in almost all Republican health care alternatives. No one is for pre-existing conditions.

But as far as the ad being a defense of Obamacare, if you’re reluctant to name what you are “unabashedly” defending, it’s hard to see how this bodes well for the fight. It’s like showing up at the game with a bag over your head to cheer for your team.

Why not just come out and tell voters that this popular feature was included in Obamacare, Senator Begich voted for it, and that’s a reason to vote for him? This hesitancy to use even the name “Obamacare” or “ACA” in positive ads about the program’s most favorable aspects is a telling indicator of the limitations facing those seeking to promote and defend Obamacare.

Contrast that with the very direct assault by the opponents. “Senator Mark Begich cast the deciding vote for Obamacare,” opens one ad by Tea Party Patriots. In another ad, Freedom Partners challenges, “Begich took thousands from insurance companies and voted for Obamacare, which gave insurers billons and a guaranteed bailout, while Alaskans suffer from cancelled plans and higher costs.”

It’s difficult to win a fight if you won’t admit you’re in the fight.

The President, at one of his now regular appearances to remind people how much they should like Obamacare, has argued, “Democrats should forcefully defend that millions of people… we’re helping because of something we did. I think there is a strong, good, right story to tell.”

That sounds great, but Democrats up for re-election in difficult races might be asking themselves, “If this is such a great story, how come you didn’t tell it when you ran?” Of the over half a billion dollars the Obama re-election campaign spent on advertising, it didn’t run an ad on Obamacare—except in Spanish for Hispanic audiences. This places the President a bit like the officers in the First World War urging soldiers over the top while they stay safely in the trenches. “Come on, lads, we’ve got a great story to tell. Over you go.”

Politics is the perfect marketplace. Candidates and campaigns promote what they believe best serves their electoral interests. It’s not to say they believe in nothing or will say anything—most candidates actually do have a set of core beliefs—but given the limitations of money and time, campaigns must be ruthless about what they choose to focus on in ads and press. It’s hardly a revelation that they select what they think will get them the most votes.

The 2012 Obama campaign put Obamacare in the majority of their Hispanic ads because the program has always been most popular among Hispanics. (That number is dropping fast, by the way.) They didn’t advertise it on non-Hispanic television because they knew it was an inefficient way to get votes. It motivated the opposition more than supporters. Smart politics.

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For all the talk about being a good party member, every campaign is ultimately going to do what most helps their candidate, be it Republican or Democrat. Vast sums of money will be spent in polling and focus groups between now and the election testing the effectiveness of messages. It will all have a single purpose: What moves voters?

Watch the campaigns. If Democrats in tough races start running ads attacking their opponents for opposing Obamacare, it will be a sure sign that they believe it’s a fight they can win. Likewise, if Republicans stop attacking Obamacare, it will be a definite indicator they believe the program is gaining in popularity.

Ultimately, Obamacare is a consumer product and will be judged like most consumer products: based on its ability to deliver good service at a good price. It’s often compared to Social Security and Medicare, but both of those programs were introduced as new services and did not face existing market competition.

Not so for Obamacare. It is a new health insurance system that replaced one that had existed for some time. To be popular, it has to prove to the majority of the market that it is superior to the previous product. Initial sign-ups have no more to do with satisfaction of service delivery than the millions who once had AOL or those suffering with Comcast.

Politicians tend to be for what’s popular. Shocking, huh? When those whose votes created Obamacare start acting like they are proud of their votes, it will be the best indicator yet that the Obamacare market has turned. Until then, its opponents will attack it vigorously by name and dare those who disagree to defend.