Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Will Democrats let ‘Obamacare’ sink them again?

For the midterms, Dems and their donors must turn the health care law from deadweight into a reason to celebrate

March 31, 2014 7:00AM ET

After using critiques of the Affordable Care Act as a battering ram to win control of the House of Representatives in 2010, Republicans are now counting on the unpopular health law to help them take over the Senate. They aren’t messing with a successful formula. By contrast, Democrats and their well-heeled friends are showing few signs so far of heeding the lessons of failure.

To be fair, while Republicans spent the past four years busily assailing Obamacare, Democrats were equally busily trying to make it work. But that’s no excuse for them to court yet another midterm disaster under a dark ACA cloud. With the first enrollment period drawing to a close, President Barack Obama and his party have an opportunity to move into a new offensive phase — if their donors step up to help this ungainly cause.

Democrats take encouragement from polls showing that people are tired of the health care debate, that only about 3 in 10 want the law repealed, that many of the ACA’s individual elements are popular and that some of its opponents are liberals (PDF) who won’t be voting for Republicans on any ballot. Yet there’s ample evidence that Obamacare poses a real risk for Democrats, starting with an AP online poll that shows it is viewed less favorably than ever. In addition, the geography of this year’s critical Senate races is unfriendly. Democrats are trying to hang on to seats in a number of states — among them West Virginia, Montana, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina — where there is notable hostility to the party, the president and the health law.

Another major indicator is the intensity with which Republicans are focusing on the ACA. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus was careful at a recent Christian Science Monitor breakfast to call Obamacare “an” issue (rather than the only issue) in the midterm elections. But he also described it as “total poison” for Democrats. On a conference call commemorating the law’s fourth birthday, Rep. Greg Walden, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, offered another characterization: It is, he said, the pre-eminent symbol of “too much costly dysfunctional government involvement in your life.”

The GOP has plenty of ammunition, from the horrible rollout of the federal online marketplaces to continuing delays and adjustments as the administration tries to smooth out a transition that affects millions of Americans. Potential enrollees have had problems understanding plans, finding affordable plans, signing up for plans and keeping their own doctors. And then there’s Obama’s “lie of the year,” his promise that if people liked their health plan, they could keep it, when in fact some policies were discontinued because they didn’t comply with new minimum coverage requirements. The GOP is reinforcing all these points with strategies that range from the hyperlocal — putting potential supporters in touch with neighbors or co-workers who have had their health insurance canceled — to TV ad campaigns in which relatable Americans air their complaints. The $30 million blitz in key House and Senate battlegrounds is being financed by the conservative Koch brothers (combined worth: $100 billion) through their super-PAC, Americans for Prosperity.

A massive national rebranding of the Affordable Care Act could be the best bulwark for Democrats against wholesale losses this fall, and that takes money.

The response from Democratic candidates has ranged widely: from avoiding the subject to embracing the law to reciting “keep and fix” (or “mend, don’t end”) on auto-repeat. The overarching party message, delivered on the Senate floor by Majority Leader Harry Reid and in a new $3 million ad campaign funded by the Senate Majority PAC, has been to attack the Koch brothers. (One spot references “out-of-state billionaires playing politics with health care,” while another mentions that those same billionaires and their candidate are “helping insurance companies win big profits.”) In short, Democrats have been reactive and negative; attacking the Kochs may or may not be effective, but it is certainly not enough. The Dems are also being outspent 10 to 1 on ads and outpaced more than 2 to 1  in the number of spots aired. Democrats have plenty of relatable Americans on their side who are grateful for Obamacare. Many of them can be found in videos posted on the Department of Health and Human Services website — not exactly the highest-profile showcase.

A massive national rebranding of the ACA could be the best bulwark against wholesale losses this fall, and that takes money. So far, however, wealthy donors are not playing to win in the largest, most consequential sense. Instead they are engaging in personal crusades: California billionaire Tom Steyer plans to spend close to $100 million on attack ads targeting 2014 candidates on the issue of climate change, while former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has boasted that he’d outspend the National Rifle Association to promote candidates supporting tighter gun control laws. Others are putting their time and money into the 2016 presidential race, particularly preparations for a potential Hillary Clinton run, despite pleas from Obama and other Democrats to focus on 2014.

Obamacare is admittedly hard to love, especially for liberals partial to a single-payer system or the public insurance option that didn’t make it into the law. Yet success on the gun control or climate change front will be less likely if Democrats lose their Senate majority and dig a deeper hole in the House. That’s why, as Matt Bennett, a strategist at the center-left Third Way think tank, told me, “There is no higher political priority for Democrats” than bolstering the ACA.

He and other Democratic strategists, eyeing dire Senate forecasts and Obama’s lackluster job approval ratings, are frustrated and bewildered by the donor void on Obamacare. “There was a desperate need in 2010 and they didn’t come in,” pollster Stan Greenberg told me. This year, he said, Democrats feel that because “this is the law, this will never be reversed,” they do not have to get involved. For Republicans, “it’s the only thing they have that unites them and therefore it’s their strategy. It’s a different sense of urgency.” “I think it’s stupid,” he added, referring to the tepid response from Democratic donors. “They should put their money in.”

What if they did? Imagine a massive ad campaign highlighting the positive impact of the health law: newly available or affordable insurance, savings on drugs, ability to stay on a parent’s plan, free preventive care. Nixing partisan attacks, the ads should feature regular people discussing Obamacare in practical, personal and apolitical terms, and it should run not on a governmental website but on ESPN, HGTV and the Discovery Channel. The idea would be to change the political weather surrounding the ACA. Think of the soft-focus spots so prevalent on news and Sunday talk shows, rife with farms, factories and football fields. The narrators speak of values and aspirations; the visuals show people who could be your friends, relatives and neighbors. You end up feeling sentimental about investment firms and defense contractors — both arguably much harder to sell than a law that helps people.

If the Democrats are lucky, their donors will recognize the danger stalking the party and start the money flowing for just such a rebrand or another type of turnaround project. If they don’t, Democrats are facing a second midterm roll of the Obamacare dice and months of defensive campaigning.

Jill Lawrence, the author of the Brookings Institution’s Profiles in Negotiation series, is a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor and a member of USA Today’s board of contributors.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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