By Russell Berman and Alexander Bolton - 09/05/12 08:20 PM EDT
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Democrats at the podium of the party’s national convention are fully — and finally — embracing President Obama's signature healthcare law, and liberal lawmakers are applauding the move.
On Tuesday's opening night, speaker after speaker championed the 2010 Affordable Care Act, a trumpeting that was striking for a law that top Democrats had largely sidelined because of its lingering unpopularity with the public.
“For us Democrats, ObamaCare is a badge of honor,” proclaimed Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services. “Because no matter who you are, what stage of life you're in, this law is a good thing.”
Echoing earlier presenters, first lady Michelle Obama characterized the president’s decision to push through the contentious legislation as an example of putting policy above politics.
“When it comes to the health of our families, Barack refused to listen to all those folks who told him to leave health reform for another day, another president,” she said in her convention speech Tuesday night. “He didn't care whether it was the easy thing to do politically — that's not how he was raised — he cared that it was the right thing to do.”
Democrats express confidence healthcare will be a winner for their party in the fall.
Neera Tanden, a former adviser to Sebelius who is now at the liberal Center for American Progress, said Obama would challenge GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney over his support for the Massachusetts healthcare law during the presidential debates. She said the president is intimately familiar with the law and ready to take on the GOP nominee point by point.
“My advice to them will be to use Mitt Romney’s experience on healthcare as an attack on Mitt Romney but also a character point about what he was willing to do five years ago, six years ago. He was arguing for the individual mandate,” Tanden said Wednesday at a breakfast panel sponsored by The Hill.
At the same event, former Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania said Democratic candidates should take advantage of the staggered implementation of the healthcare law, which has installed some benefits before tax increases kick in.
He said they should challenge Republican opponents about what parts of the law they would repeal, citing provisions banning insurance companies from excluding children with pre-existing conditions and giving seniors rebates for prescription drugs not covered by Medicare.
“We can kill them on it,” he said.
At the convention on Tuesday, delegates and viewers at home heard testimonials from Americans who have benefited from the law. In one video, the mother of a girl born with a congenital heart defect credits the new law with saving her daughter’s life.
The rhetorical bear-hug gratified senior congressional Democrats, who have pushed the party for more than two years to embrace the law more forthrightly. With Democrats on the defensive in 2010, many of the party’s candidates shied away from touting the healthcare law on the campaign trail. And when the two-year anniversary of the bill’s passage came in March, the White House made little mention of it.
“Do I think we could have done a better job of explaining what’s in the legislation? Yes, I think we could,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a close ally of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “But I think people are experiencing it, and that, I think, is the best way to get the word out.”
DeLauro said the healthcare law represented “the proudest vote” she had taken in her 22-year career.
“I think this is an opportunity, one, to let people know what’s in this legislation, and two, to dispel the misinformation about the legislation,” she said in an interview. “We are proud of the Affordable Care Act. We are proud of what’s in it and the difference it’s making in people’s lives. And we are going to talk about it here.”
It is possible Democrats are feeling overconfident.
Any increase in support for the law has yet to register significantly in the polls. The RealClearPolitics average of surveys on the healthcare law taken in recent months shows more favor repealing the measure than opposing repeal.
Republicans, for their part, see the healthcare law as an anchor on Obama and an effective way to rally their base. They promised to repeal “ObamaCare” at their convention last week in Tampa, Fla., though there was little talk of what they would replace it with — or of the similar healthcare law Romney signed as governor of Massachusetts.
Democratic lawmakers and strategists in Charlotte cited a number of reasons why the party could promote the law now in a way it could not previously. Several provisions have now taken effect, including those that are considered among the most popular, like adult children remaining on their parents’ coverage until age 26, a ban on insurance companies denying coverage to children because of pre-existing conditions, closing the so-called “doughnut hole” for seniors and requiring rebates from insurance companies that spend too much money on administrative costs.
“I think we Democrats have basically turned a corner on that,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate’s health committee. “We all knew that it was going to take some time for average Americans to understand what the Affordable Care Act was. But now they’re getting it. People are now saying, ‘Wow, this is good stuff.’ ”
In a speech to healthcare reform advocates, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Democrats could cite the number of Americans who have already benefited from the law. “We don’t need a reason to defend the Affordable Care Act,” he said. “We have millions of reasons to defend the Affordable Care Act.”
Harkin echoed that message, telling the same audience that his advice to Senate candidates would be: “Don’t run away from ObamaCare. Embrace it.”
Speaking afterward to reporters, Harkin also pointed to the Supreme Court decision in June upholding most of the law, and said Democrats were on better political ground now that voters had “something of value” that Republicans wanted to take away. “If people have something of value, and you want to take it away from them? Look out,” Harkin said. “That’s a losing proposition.”