By Jonathan Easley - 03/24/14 06:00 AM EDT
Democrats have been waiting for ObamaCare to become popular for four years.
Congressional leaders and senior White House advisers have been saying since 2010 that public opinion will turn their way sometime soon. Be patient, they have told anxious members of their party again and again.
“I think that [the Affordable Care Act] over time, is going to become more popular,” David Axelrod, then a senior adviser to President Obama, declared on the same show in September of that year. Two months later, Democrats ceded six Senate seats and 63 House seats to Republicans.
ObamaCare helped catapult Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) to the speakership of the House, and demolished dozens of Democratic political careers.
Democrats now face the prospect of a second midterm drubbing in 2014, and the healthcare law is even more unpopular than it was last time around.
According to a Pew survey released last week, 53 percent of the public disapproves of the Affordable Care Act, with only 41 percent saying they approve. Opinions were split almost evenly in the fall of 2010 before the Republican wave election, which Obama called a “shellacking.”
Adding to the nervousness among ObamaCare’s advocates is the fact that enrollment numbers lag significantly behind the administration’s original estimates.
If that doesn’t change, especially among young healthy people less likely to need healthcare, premiums could rise sharply.
There is a more optimistic alternative, of course. Liberals who take the long view point out that the introduction of Social Security and, later, Medicare and Medicaid met vigorous opposition from conservatives.
But in due course, the entitlement programs became embedded in American society. That, conservatives contend, is part of the problem; those programs, they say, are on course to become financially crippling in the long run.
But the critics’ concerns prompt them to urge reform, not repeal.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told The Hill in December that ObamaCare will be a “net positive” for Democrats by Election Day. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last week called it a “winner.” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, has made similar claims.
In many ways, Democratic leaders have no choice. They own Obama- Care, for better or for worse. Public divisions in the Democratic Party would only play into Republican hands.
Behind the scenes, Democrats on Capitol Hill are still flabbergasted by how the administration bungled the healthcare law’s rollout. It increased tension between Obama and Democratic lawmakers, which was constant throughout the president’s first term.
In the short term, ObamaCare’s supporters argue that a surge in enrollments is still possible and that, in any event, the chances of the law collapsing under its own weight have been greatly exaggerated. Republicans privately acknowledge that repeal is now off the table, in part because taking new healthcare coverage away from people would be political suicide.
But when it comes to November’s elections, Democratic impatience is coming to a boil. Some strategists believe ObamaCare can be a winner with voters, but a coherent all-in message from leadership has been slow to emerge and the party as a whole is on the defensive.
“It was deeply frustrating for me that the website debacle happened,” said Democratic strategist Maria Cardona, a principal at the Dewey Square Group.
“It’s even more frustrating when you think of where the polls were before the debacle, which was just after the shutdown, and Democrats had hopes of taking the House.”
All hope of Democrats winning back the lower chamber has vanished, especially after the GOP’s recent special-election victory in Florida. The biggest political question of the 2014 cycle is: Can Republicans capture the Senate?
When congressional Republicans were blamed for shutting down the government last October, angry voters turned on the GOP, and backing for the healthcare law rose. But that rising tide of support receded rapidly after the launch fiasco of the insurance exchanges.
HealthCare.gov’s crash and Obama’s unfulfilled promise that people who liked their healthcare plans could keep them have stoked widespread hostility toward the law.
This has broken Democratic hopes of enacting other parts of Obama’s agenda, and incumbents do not have time for any more “wait and see.”
Republicans have again made Obama-Care their top campaign issue, and are hammering Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.), Mark Warner (Va.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Kay Hagan (N.C.) and Mark Begich (Alaska) for their support of the law.
A Democratic strategist who spoke to The Hill on condition of anonymity said ObamaCare has been “terrorized” by millions of dollars in hostile advertisements that have been left unanswered. The counterattack has yet to materialize.
“That’s unfortunate and it’s a big problem,” the operative said. “You have to put some money behind it and that hasn’t been done the last two years and the other side has taken advantage of that. There just hasn’t been a similar effort on our side. That’s really frustrating, and I think Democrats were expecting a better counter-offensive.”
Democratic strategist Steve McMahon, who co-founded Purple Strategies, said the party cannot backpedal into the election cycle armed only with apologies. He pointed to aspects of the law that poll well and said that Democrats can take the offensive.
Most people, he pointed out, favor the law’s regulations that ensure people with pre-existing ailments can get insurance and permit young people to stay on their parents’ policies until the age of 26. Most voters also favor fixing ObamaCare rather than repealing it.
“Hiding, handwringing and apologizing is not a position of strength,” McMahon said. “Nearly all of the individual benefits that are provided by the Affordable Care Act are enormously popular.
“If Republicans want to talk about ObamaCare, Democrats need to talk about things ObamaCare does for their constituents,” he added. “ObamaCare is going to be the conversation Republicans bring, so Democrats can’t shy away from it. They should welcome it and win with it.”
Democrats deny they are panicking, and say the political winds can shift dramatically between now and November.
They point out that ObamaCare was front and center in 2012 when Obama won a second term and Democrats picked up seats in both the House and the Senate.
“I think Axelrod and Schumer will turn out to be right,” McMahon said.
Many a theory survives primarily because its proponents can keep arguing that time will prove them right. But the Democrats do not have the luxury of such an open-ended trial period; they have only seven months.