The Obama administration’s decision to delay implementation on a key plank of ObamaCare is a double-edged sword for Democrats up for reelection in 2014, say strategists in both parties.
The delay until 2015 of the mandate, which requires many employers to provide healthcare coverage, could allow Democrats to avoid bad election-year headlines about employers opting to cut workers' hours or staff to avoid the financial penalty.
But it also gives Republicans fodder to argue that the law is unworkable, expensive and that Democrats decided to put off implementing the employer mandate to avoid the political blowback from carrying out what they passed into law.
Democrats are split about the impact.
“It's probably better to try to fix the concerns that business, especially, were voicing about this rather than implement it poorly,” said Democratic strategist Penny Lee, a former top adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidVoters need to feel the benefit, not just hear the message Schumer-McConnell dial down the debt ceiling drama Mellman: Are independents really so independent? MORE (D-Nev.).
“It's a double-edged sword, though. Pick your poison. There's no easy answer.”
Lee said she doubts the change will have an outsized impact on 2014, arguing that voters long ago formed their opinions about the Democratic healthcare law, for better or worse.
But she said that the delay would be a marginal benefit for Democrats facing tough reelections — especially for red-state senators who haven’t faced voters since the law passed, like Sens. Mark BegichMark Peter BegichAlaska Senate race sees cash surge in final stretch Alaska group backing independent candidate appears linked to Democrats Sullivan wins Alaska Senate GOP primary MORE (Alaska), Mark PryorMark Lunsford PryorBottom line Everybody wants Joe Manchin Cotton glides to reelection in Arkansas MORE (Ark.), Mary LandrieuMary Loretta LandrieuCassidy wins reelection in Louisiana Bottom line A decade of making a difference: Senate Caucus on Foster Youth MORE (La.) and Kay HaganKay Ruthven HaganInfighting grips Nevada Democrats ahead of midterms Democrats, GOP face crowded primaries as party leaders lose control Biden's gun control push poses danger for midterms MORE (D-N.C.).
“By delaying it a year, people will see there hasn't been an entire disruption of the healthcare system,” she said. “Going into the 2014 elections, it will be beneficial to Democrats to have less disruptions to individuals' lives.”
Other Democrats agreed neither option was ideal but disagreed that the move was the best one for their party’s chances at the polls.
“On balance, I think this is bad news for Democrats, not good news. The best way forward is to plow through it all and get this thing implemented,” said one top Democratic strategist who requested anonymity so he could criticize the administration.
“Obviously the employer mandate has huge opposition with the business community, so [the decision] certainly helps there. On the other hand, it raises a lot of questions about ObamaCare and validates Republican criticism. It is not good that the administration cannot implement ObamaCare as scheduled.”
Republicans are similarly split on whether the move will help or hurt their chances.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the head of the conservative think tank American Action Forum and a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, called the move “deviously brilliant.” He believes the move will help Democrats avoid some pain at the ballot box.
“Democrats no longer face the immediate specter of running against the fallout from a heavy regulatory imposition on employers across the land,” he wrote in a Wednesday op-ed.
“Explaining away the mandate was going to be a big political lift; having the White House airbrush it from the landscape is way better.”
But many more argued the move is the latest sign that as ObamaCare comes online this year and next it will prove to be unworkable, triggering a voter backlash against the party that authored it.
“It reignites the debate again. For folks like Landrieu and Pryor, even Begich, it's a serious political problem,” said GOP strategist Brian Walsh, the former communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
“There are real-world consequences now that weren't there in 2012. People are going to reevaluate their views on the bill. Now they have to actually grapple with the real-world aspects of the bill rather than a hypothetical debate in the newspapers. This is an early example of that.”