Democrats worry party is squandering political opportunity on ObamaCare

Democrats worry party is squandering political opportunity on ObamaCare
© Greg Nash

Democrats are fretting that the top 2020 presidential candidates are squandering an opportunity to defend ObamaCare in the wake of last week’s court ruling invalidating a portion of the law. 

Almost immediately after the decision came down, congressional Democrats, as well as congressional candidates, began attacking Republicans for trying to take away Americans’ health care. 

“The Republicans don’t have a plan. This is the party that has actively tried to take away my health care coverage for the last 10 years,” said freshman Rep. Lauren UnderwoodLauren UnderwoodJulián Castro launches PAC to support progressive candidates Gun control group rolls out House endorsements Human Rights Campaign rolls out congressional endorsements on Equality Act anniversary MORE (D-Ill.), a lawmaker Republicans have targeted for 2020.

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Mark Kelly, the top Democratic candidate challenging Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyThe Hill's Campaign Report: Minneapolis protests rock the nation Democrats gear up to hit GOP senators on DACA Pence names new press secretary MORE (R-Ariz.), said the incumbent is not standing up for her constituents.

“This lawsuit still threatens to raise health care costs and eliminate protections for Arizonans with pre-existing conditions. I’ll stand up to anyone who comes after Arizonans’ health care,” Kelly said in a statement. 

The strategy of painting Republicans as major threats to health care helped Democrats win the House in 2018, but lawmakers, activists and strategists are concerned the 2020 presidential candidates are not doing enough to take advantage of the court’s potential political gift.

Instead, candidates have continued to hit each other over disagreements about “Medicare for All,” leaving an opportunity for Republicans to seize the narrative. 

“Democrats need to make clear why they are the cure to Trump’s health care repeal,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who worked on Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump campaign launches Asian Pacific Americans coalition Van Jones: A 'white, liberal Hillary Clinton supporter' can pose a greater threat to black Americans than the KKK Taylor Swift slams Trump tweet: 'You have the nerve to feign moral superiority before threatening violence?' MORE’s 2016 presidential campaign. 

“Presidential candidates are focused on their small differences, but not enough on the massive difference between what we’re offering and the damage his agenda would do,” Ferguson said. 

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In a 2-1 ruling last week, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals found ObamaCare’s individual mandate unconstitutional but punted on ruling on the rest of the law. 

The two GOP-appointed justices sent the case back to a lower court in Texas, where a conservative district judge already ruled the entire law was invalid. The ruling effectively delays any potential action until after the 2020 elections.

The lawsuit, which is supported by the Trump administration and was filed last year by Republican attorneys general, seeks to dismantle ObamaCare, which has grown in popularity after Congress failed to repeal it two years ago.

But by invalidating only part of ObamaCare, the ruling spared Republicans from dealing with the political fallout of getting what the Trump administration has long sought: a full repeal of the law. 

It remains to be seen if Democratic presidential candidates can unify around the court case. 

The most recent Democratic debate occurred just one day after the court ruling, but the candidates did not mention it. Instead, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenDonald Trump and Joe Biden create different narratives for the election Poll: Biden widens lead over Trump to 10 points Biden: 'We are a nation in pain, but we must not allow this pain to destroy us' MORE eagerly sparred with Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersExpanding tax credit for businesses retaining workers gains bipartisan support The battle of two Cubas Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Ro Khanna MORE (I-Vt.) over Sanders’s Medicare for All proposal.

Biden favors a public option, which would still require changes to the health system, though they are somewhat smaller than what Sanders proposes. Biden wants to give people the option of a government-run health plan, rather than mandatory government coverage for all as Sanders proposes. 

The concern among some Democrats is that those kinds of disagreements miss the larger picture.

“I'm super interested in a discussion about what our health care system looks like 10 years, 20 years from now, but the most important thing Democrats can do is make sure everybody knows how Donald Trump is trying to destroy the health care they have,” Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyMissouri state lawmaker sparks backlash by tweeting 'looters deserve to be shot' The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Rep. Khanna says President Trump threatening violence against US citizens; Trump terminating relationship with WHO Senators weigh traveling amid coronavirus ahead of Memorial Day MORE (D-Conn.) told The Hill. 

“I think as a party we're much better off ... talking about the president's efforts to sabotage the health care system,” Murphy added. 

The focus on single-payer is not lost on Republicans, who have lately been arguing they will protect Americans from the sweeping changes promised by Democrats.

“My Administration continues to work to provide access to high-quality healthcare at a price you can afford, while strongly protecting those with pre-existing conditions,” President TrumpDonald John TrumpDonald Trump and Joe Biden create different narratives for the election The hollowing out of the CDC Poll: Biden widens lead over Trump to 10 points MORE said in a statement after the ruling. “The radical healthcare changes being proposed by the far left would strip Americans of their current coverage. I will not let this happen.”

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Tommy Binion, vice president of government relations at the Heritage Foundation, said the ruling will force Republicans to coalesce around a health care plan. 

“Republicans are not going to be able to run on opposition [to ObamaCare] alone,” Binion said. “Medicare for All is not going to be just a thought exercise. If Democrats are going to legislate on it, people are going to see a future of health care policy they don’t want.” 

Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster working with the Biden campaign, said the ruling removes any Republican credibility on health care and the candidates should highlight the fact that Republicans do not have a plan to replace the health coverage for 20 million people if the law is eventually overturned.

“If [Republicans] wanted to position themselves well, they needed an alternative, and they offered none,” Lake said. Health care is the Democrats’ “biggest, best contrast with Republicans.” 

As long as the candidates can keep the public engaged, Lake said, Democrats should own the issue.

If the court had invalidated the entire law, “voters would have been mad, but then they wouldn’t know what to do. Cynicism is the biggest threat for Democrats. This energizes them rather than de-mobilizes them,” Lake said.