Can Democrats Neutralize Obamacare?
Earlier this week, a Politico story revealed that Democrats were circulating a memo explaining how vulnerable candidates for 2014 can neutralize Obamacare as an issue in the midterms. The memorandum was circulated to Democratic House candidates. Democrats in the House have already had to deal with Obamacare in two election cycles after most of them voted for the bill (which narrowly passed, 219-212) in 2010.
In the 2010 midterms, House Democrats suffered a crushing blow. Republicans gained solid control of the House, picking up 63 seats. The unpopularity of Obamacare, which helped trigger the rise of the Tea Party in 2010, was a critical factor in the rout of House Democrats. Voters threw out Democrats who supported the bill, as well as those who were allowed to vote "no" by Nancy Pelosi once a majority was secured. Republicans also picked up seven Senate seats in 2010.
Democratic senators up for re-election in 2014 are facing voters for the first time since their votes for the Obamacare legislation in 2009 and 2010. Several who were swept to victory in 2008 with the decisive win by Barack Obama would face challenging races this year even without the Obamacare overhang: seven states where Democrats have to defend a Senate seat in 2014 -- Alaska, West Virginia, South Dakota, North Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Montana -- were carried by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012.
Generally, midterm elections provide a slightly better mix of Republican-leaning voters than is seen in presidential election years (a higher percentage of white and older voters). Various polls show Republican candidates even or ahead in six of the seven states, trailing only in Alaska by a narrow margin. West Virginia and South Dakota are open seats. Montana is held by an appointed senator.
In the other four states, Republicans will charge that the incumbent Democratic senator cast the deciding vote for Obamacare, which achieved exactly the 60 votes needed to break the GOP filibuster on the legislation. Each senator can be individually blamed for the legislation passing.
In several other states that Obama carried in 2012 -- Michigan and Iowa among them -- Republicans are well positioned to pick up open Senate seats or to mount a serious challenge to defeat first-term Democrats (New Hampshire, Colorado, Virginia and Minnesota have first-term Democrats). If 2014 proves to be a wave election, the number of Democratic Senate seats at risk could grow to ten or more.
The attempt to insulate Democrats who voted for Obamacare legislation is fraught with risk for the party. President Obama and his administration have done everything in their power to protect Democrats in the midterms by unilaterally pushing back start dates for various sections of the legislation -- such as the employer mandate -- until 2015. They also pushed back the open enrollment period for individuals in 2014, moving the start of the second annual enrollment period a few weeks past Election Day. This was to avoid anger about higher premium prices offered on the exchanges in the second year, assuming the mix of enrolled people in the first year proved to be unusually expensive to cover for insurance plans (too few young and healthy, too many older, sicker enrollees).
The Obama team had assumed that once the enrollment numbers are in for the first year, complaints about the program would soon subside. While congressmen such as Illinois Senator Dick Durbin continue to tout a number of 10 million enrollees to date, that number appears to be vastly overstated. After eliminating exchange enrollees who were substituting exchange polices for cancelled individual policies, and once Medicaid enrollment numbers are analyzed to separate out only those associated with the Medicaid expansion due to the new law, the net enrollment may only be a third or a fourth of the “advertised” numbers. Also, some of those with cancelled policies will go without insurance this year.
The Obama campaign team is relying on diversions to combat the unpopularity of the new law. Unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, income and wealth inequality, and the “war on women" are designed to turn the page, to create a playing field where Democrats can sell themselves as caring and Republicans as heartless. However, Democrats had complete control of the White House and both houses of Congress when they passed Obamacare and the near $900 billion stimulus in early 2009, and recent polls show that economic insecurity and jobs are still very important issues for voters. It will be difficult for Democrats to blame Republicans for creating the economic conditions of the last five-plus years.
The Democrats also have to deal with a shrill but very well-funded environmental advocacy faction that seems to have appeal mostly to wealthy single-issue zealots in California and Massachusetts. Unfortunately for them, climate change fails to resonate at all among average voters, who rank the issue near the very bottom of a list of 20 issues of importance. This year’s winter weather and the 17-year trend of stable temperatures not predicted by 95% of climate models have been an embarrassment to this faction.
Voters care more about job prospects and having affordable health insurance. On this front, recent CBO estimates that a) Obamacare might result in the loss of over two million full-time equivalent jobs and that b) raising the minimum wage to $10.10 will result in a the loss of another half-million jobs have been damaging to the ability of Democrats to escape the economy.
The attempt to neutralize the Obamacare issue contains a few themes for candidates: the GOP has wasted too much time on repeal votes; it’s time to move on to solving the law’s problems; and Republicans want to return to the days where insurance companies took advantage of customers. Some Democrats also are resurrecting the claim that Republicans will gut Medicare.
Bashing insurance companies, always a popular theme for Democrats, may not play well this year, as Republicans are highlighting that Obamacare provides three years of subsidies for insurance companies through risk corridors. There are rumors that these corridors may be further extended. If the Obama administration is working to secure lower rates in coming years through subsidies, this crony capitalism will undercut political arguments about evil insurers and their practices.
The reality is that most Americans do not expect Obamacare to be defunded, or repealed, even though strong majorities continue to have a negative view of the law. But they would prefer that it work better and disrupt their lives less.
The administration, knowing that their signature legislation was a lemon and that the roll-out was almost certainly going to be a disaster, missed the opportunity to put the whole program on hold for a year -- as some Republicans were demanding last fall.
As is their habit, the Obama team chose to go forward with their legislative mess rather than hand the Tea Party a political victory. Delaying the implementation for a year might have enabled Obama’s team to come up with more comprehensive changes and to avoid the misery of six million cancelled policies. It might have given them a chance to deal with Obama’s big lie: “If you like your insurance, you can keep your insurance.” Democrats got the gift of a government shutdown for two weeks, which badly hurt Republicans in opinion polls and allowed for some grandstanding by certain members of the party. But when a deal was struck to reopen the government and to extend the debt ceiling, the Obamacare debacle was on full display without distracting issues.
Opinions get set, and when they do, they are hard to reverse. Most American think Obamacare was a poorly designed and unnecessarily complex piece of legislation, and that the administration badly botched the rollout. Trying to squeeze some lemonade from this lemon will almost certainly fail, despite the endless spinning. The single most disturbing poll result for the administration was the recent survey that showed a large majority of Americans (74%) were disturbed by the administration bypassing Congress by issuing executive orders to change Obamacare and other laws.
It hardly seems likely that Democrats can talk their way out of their Obamacare votes and “neutralize” the issue.