Thursday, August 28, 2014

Democrats won't run on Obamacare

The big will-they-or-won't-they of 2014 is whether the Democrats will run on Obamacare.

The case for is clear: the law overcame a rocky start to blow past expectations and sign up 8 million people in its insurance exchanges and another 3 million plus in its Medicaid expansion. It's the Democratic Party's most significant social policy achievement since the Great Society. It's the Obama administration's signature piece of legislation. And whether Democrats like it or not, they own it — so they might as well run on it.

The case against is, if anything, even clearer: the law has been unpopular since the day it passed. Loathing for Obamacare unites the warring elements of the Republican Party. Since the Affordable Care Act's passage, the laws opponents have outspent its supporters 15:1. And though the law beat enrollment expectations its launch was an extraordinarily high-profile disaster — so much so that the public still thinks Obamacare has fallen short of its sign-up goals.

So in our interview, I asked House Minority Leader nancy Pelosi what Democrats would do in 2014. She was extremely clear. First, she said, the law's name is the "Affordable Care Act" (or "The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act," if you want to be pedantic), not "Obamacare." She was obviously proud of its launch, calling it "beautiful." As for running on it: "We're not running on or from the Affordable Care Act." Politically, she said, "I think it turns out to be a wash." (You can see her full answer on Obamacare in the video clip above this post.)

That's another way of saying no, Democrats will not run on the Affordable Care Act in the 2014 midterm elections. Some individual Democrats might, but the party as a whole won't be orienting its messaging or resources towards Obamacare.

There's a lot Democrats do want to run on. Pelosi is beginning a bus tour highlighting the gender wage gap. Democrats love hitting Republicans over the minimum wage. They all believe that the various Republican budgets, with their deep cuts and aggressive reforms to Medicare, present an opening. But their signature policy achievement doesn't make the list.

If you had told most Democrats in 2010 that by the time the 2014 election rolled around Obamacare would have rolled out with lower premiums and higher enrollment than anyone projected they would have been thrilled. They knew when they passed the law that it was going to be a political loser in the 2010 election but they figured that if they could just get it up-and-running — and insuring millions of people — it would be a winner in future elections. And perhaps it will be. But the definition of "future" keeps getting pushed out. Obamacare is working, but not for Democrats.

The interesting question raised by Pelosi's answer isn't so much when Democrats begin running on Obamacare so much as when they begin running against it — or at least on ways to improve it. "I wanted single payer, and I wanted a public option," she said.

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