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Begala to Dems: Come Out Swinging on Obamacare

David McNew/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The Democrats’ loss in this week’s special congressional election probably wasn’t a referendum on Obamacare. But, at the moment, the law still looks seems more like a political liability than an asset. And with Republicans making Obamacare the focus of their midterm strategy, many Democrats have been responding with a mixed message: Acknowledge the Affordable Care Act has flaws, but vow to fix them rather than repeal the whole program. That seems to be roughly consistent with polls, which suggest the majority of Americans don’t like the health care law but the majority also don’t want to get rid of it.

But nuanced messages have problems, even if the nuances reflect public sentiments. A politician who starts with backpedaling (“Yes, the law has problems, but…”) is bound to sound weak. And weak politicians don’t generally make attractive candidates. Particularly with the media focusing on Obamacare's bad news, while giving short shrift Obamacare's good news, the Democrats’ posture could end up reinforcing the doubts that already exist—further undermining Democratic candidates and, eventually the Affordable Care Act itself.

Of course, I could be totally wrong about this. I know policy, not politics. But it appears at least one prominent Democratic strategist is thinking along the same lines.

The strategist is Paul Begala. In an interview with the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, who has become the go-to source for insights into liberal political strategy, Begala gives Democrats some blunt advice: “We should flip the wording of how we talk about Obamacare. Open on offense, instead of defense.” That would mean starting the conversation by reminding voters what Republicans propose to take away—like guaranteed insurance, even for people with pre-existing conditions, and extra assistance on Medicare prescription drugs. “That’s point one,” Begala says. “Then you say, ‘look, I’m open to working with everybody to fix the law. But I’ll never let them go back to the days where insurance companies could send letters saying your coverage has been cancelled because you have a pre-exisiting condition.”

One reason to think the argument might work is that it worked once before. In 2012, President Obama used a very similar set of arguments—and adopted a very similar posture—in his campaign against Mitt Romney. He attacked Romney and the Republicans relentlessly—pointing out that, if successful, repeal would mean more exposure to insurance company abuses and fewer people with insurance.

This is a very different election, obviously. The candidates are different and the stories about disrupted insurance and rate shock, particularly for the young and healthy, will loom large. The Affordable Care Act is a real piece of public policy, with real tradeoffs, and Democrats are responsible for that.

But the benefits of Obamacare are also a lot less hypothetical than they were when Obama was talking about them on the stump. People who could never get insurance have it for the first time. People who could barely afford premiums are getting financial help. People who had weak coverage, with major gaps, finally have comprehensive insurance. These are real constituencies, with stories that can resonate just as much as the ones on Fox News. 

And their plight puts Republicans into a difficult position. Pretty much every Republican running for office has vowed to repeal Obamacare. Few have offered meaningful alternatives and virtually none have offered alternatives that would come anywhere close to providing the same kind of coverage and protection that the Affordable Care Act does. Meanwhile, Republican leaders in Congress keep promising to get behind a proposal and then keep failing to do so and it’s no mystery why: Any serious attempt to craft legislation would reveal their ideas to be highly unpopular.

It’s fair to say, then, that the official Republican Party position is to restore the old order—the one with features that, consistently, the American people have said they don’t like. Exposing these facts may or may not help Democrats in the fall. But they will have the virtue being true.