Democrats' Empty Obamacare Fix-It Strategy



Democrats can't run on Obamacare. And they can't run on repealing it. So they've settled on a middle ground—keep Obamacare, but fix it!

The problem is that most of the Democrats running on fixing Obamacare have little if anything to say about how they would fix it. And the few tweaks they have proposed wouldn't fundamentally change the law, or what people dislike about it. It's a sort of turnabout for Democrats who have long complained about the GOP's shallow health policy.

You can see how well the fix-it strategy worked for Florida congressional candidate Alex Sink, who, despite better funding, name recognition, and an early lead, lost to a trouble-plagued Republican campaign by lobbyist David Jolly. The race was about more than Obamacare, but Jolly hit Sink with ads bashing her for supporting the health law, and Sink, who wasn't in Congress when the law passed, responded by distancing herself from President Obama's implementation and promising to fix what was broken about the law. How? That was never quite clear.

Embattled Democratic senator Mary Landrieu, who is facing an extremely tough race in Louisiana, is taking a similar approach with her ad campaign. Landrieu at least has a fix in mind—a bill she sponsored to let people with cancelled individual insurance coverage keep their plans. But it's basically been made moot by President Obama's administrative tweaks to the same effect. And it wouldn't solve the law's more enduring political problems; opposition to Obamacare predates last year's wave of plan cancellations.

Even if Democrats wanted to go further, what could they do? As the Washington Examiner's Byron York argued recently, the more meaningful the changes, the more those changes undermine the law. This is a problem that is already plaguing the administration, which has attempted to salvage the law's short-term political prospects in ways that are likely to undermine its policy mechanisms—and thus, eventually, create longer term political headaches. Indeed, the administration's run of tweaks suggests the limits of the fix-it strategy: Despite a series of highly political alterations to the law, approval remains shaky. 

The faux fix-it campaign turns the tables on Democrats, who have (not entirely unreasonably) made much out of the GOP's lack of alternative health policy solutions. Now it is Democrats who have no meaningful alternative to their own unpopular law. They are hoping that since some polls show more of the public would rather fix the law than repeal it, this will pay off. But in some ways that puts Democrats in a worse place than their opponents. The public may not be happy with the Republican Party's unwillingness to propose a replacement, but at least there's the possibility that one will emerge, and be acceptable, at some point in the future. The public knows full well what Democrats support, however, and they have been consistently clear that they do not like it.

Fundamentally, what Democrats are hoping is that opposition to Obamacare is only surface-level fixation. But years of steady opposition, and rough poll numbers following the rollout of what were supposed to be the law's biggest and more crowd-pleasing benefits, make that a tough proposition to support. Despite endless predictions that a shift was right around the corner—just as soon as the public found out about the law's benefits—public disapproval of the health law has remained strong.

Partisans are now advising Democrats to more fully embrace Obamacare, in hopes that a more aggressive strategy will work where the timid fix-it dance has failed. But that only shows how few options the party has with regard to the law, for it amounts to little more than the continued hope that public opinion on the law will flip, and that what is now a liability for Democrats in tight races will somehow become a help. Embracing Obamacare would require Democrats to talk about Obamacare, but years of unsuccessful messaging reboots have proven that they have no idea how to do that in a way that moves people to like it.

The fix-it line is not a meaningful campaign to fix the health law, it's a messaging strategy designed to help struggling Democrats defend themselves in the face of an unpopular law. But Obamacare's problems are not a messaging problems. They are policy problem. And despite their desperate insistence that the law can be fixed, if you only give them one more shot, Democrats have no real policy fixes to offer.