The Affordable Care Act, known colloquially as “Obamacare,” is President Barack Obama’s signature law. And just as Democrats abandoned Obama on the midterm campaign trail, so too did they abandon Obamacare. After all, it’s got his name on it! And according to media and pundits, the law remains deeply unpopular. Yet maybe, just maybe, that’s a messaging problem on the part of the Democratic Party, and not a problem with the law itself.
According to a Gallup poll released Friday, 74 percent of Americans insured through the exchanges rate their quality of healthcare as “good” or “excellent.” 71 percent said the same thing about the coverage itself. A full three quarters are satisfied with the cost, and furthermore, 68 percent plan to renew the same policy, with another seven percent planning to get a new policy through the exchanges.
Here’s the thing about midterm elections — the population at large doesn’t seem to find them that interesting. That means that the election is more about firing up your base than it is about trying to appeal to moderate constituents. By abandoning Obama when Republicans were doing everything they could to tie Democratic candidates to him, they made the party weak. They didn’t give liberals something to fight for, and they allowed the GOP to give their base something to fight against. As the Washington Post says, it was a campaign without narrative, and things might have been different:
If there had been a narrative, particularly if “repeal Obamacare” had been the motivating factor behind Republican campaigns, that might not have been the case. In national exit polling, 46 percent of respondents said the health-care law was about right or didn’t go far enough; four-fifths of them voted for Democrats. Among those who said health care was the most important issue facing the country (a quarter of voters), they backed Democrats by a 20-point margin. Obamacare has always been fairly unpopular overall, but support for it is high among Democrats and relatively mixed (though negative) among independents.
Now that the elections are over, you can bet that Republicans will continue attacks on Obamacare. Part of the reason public opinion has been divided on the law is the constant attacks, in fact; if you repeat a lie often enough, some people are going to end up believing it. It doesn’t help that Democrats haven’t been eager to campaign or talk about the strengths of the program, either.
The fact is the law is a success, and Democrats should have campaigned on it.
And there are examples of staunchly progressive Democrats winning. Take, for example, this excerpt from Mother Jones, detailing Senator Al Franken’s (D-MN) victory:
He won re-election by 10 percent in a state where most voters disapprove of President Obama’s job performance. And he pulled it off by bucking the trend. Across the country, other Democratic Senate candidates distanced themselves from President Obama and the Democratic Party platform. Mark Warner, who squeaked by in Virginia, preferred to talk about how he’d tweak the Affordable Care Act than his vote for the bill, while arguing that he hasn’t actually voted with President Obama all that often. Mark Udall in Colorado decided he didn’t want to be seen with Obama. Challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky wouldn’t even say if she voted for Obama in 2012—after serving as one of his delegates to the national convention.
Franken took the opposite approach. Instead of running away from the progressive accomplishments of the Obama era, he embraced them, railing against bankers, advocating for student loan reform—even defending the Affordable Care Act. Franken ran as an Elizabeth Warren-style Democrat, running a populist campaign that didn’t shirk discussion of the specific policies Democrats could pursue to help the middle class. And voters rewarded him.
Udall and Grimes both lost. There is a silver lining, though. It looks as though Democrats in the Senate — set to be in Republican hands come next year — might have learned something from the experience. Maybe not about winning midterm elections, but about listening to the progressive wing of the party and fighting for the things that matter to their constituents. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has been named to a leadership position in the Senate, which includes acting as a liaison to activists.