The obvious inspiration for President Obama's Thursday press conference was to announce that the Affordable Care Act has eclipsed new milestones—8 million private exchange enrollees the most significant among them.
But the subtext—or one of the subtexts—was to knock vulnerable Democrats in Congress out of their defensive crouches.
"I think that Democrats should forcefully defend, and be proud of the fact that millions of people [are being helped] because of something we did," Obama said. "I don't think we should apologize for it, and I don't think we should be defensive about it. I think think there is a strong, good, right story to tell. I think what the other side is doing and what the other side is offering would strip away protections from those families and from hundreds [sic] of millions of people who already had health insurance before the law passed."
All well taken, until he got to this line.
"I think what Democrats should do is not be defensive but we need to move on and focus on the things that are really important to the American people right now."
Obama returned repeatedly to a recognition that Republicans are intent upon making the Affordable Care Act the focal point of their midterm election campaign, no matter how many people the law is helping. But his suggestion that Dems should only engage them in service of pivoting to other issues suggest he worries that dwelling on the issue would be politically damaging to Democratic candidates. He's saying, in other words, that he doesn't think the GOP's obsession can be turned into a political liability for Republicans.
I think it's wildly premature to conclude that.
As a matter of shoe-leather campaigning, I agree that it would be weird for Democrats to just talk about how great Obamacare is all the time. Unlike the GOP, they have a broad, popular agenda, and it makes sense to draw out that distinction, rather than to run on the agenda items they've already ticked off. It's why the Senate has and will continue to be a laboratory for a bunch of popular liberal ideas—minimum wage, equal pay, employment non-discrimination, unemployment, voting rights—that also appeal to the political coalition that elected Obama twice.
But the Republican position has some real, fundamental weaknesses—I wrote about them recently—and whether it's on the trail, or on the air, or on Capitol Hill, Democrats should eventually consider exploiting them in the same way that they're exploiting the GOP's opposition to increasing the minimum wage and passing immigration reform.
On Wednesday, I noted that in battleground states across the country, the GOP's once-unwavering position on the Affordable Care Act is starting to wobble. This is particularly true in states that have agreed to expand Medicaid.
The GOP candidates in these states constitute the soft underbelly of the Republicans' repeal campaign. Punch at it a little, and their position will deteriorate. If Democrats and their allies go on air to note—correctly, and uncontroversially—that their opponents want to take insurance away from hundreds of thousands of new beneficiaries, and make it lawful once again for insurance companies to discriminate against the ill, the law's drag effect might shrink, and eventually change directions.
At some point it might even make sense for Democratic leaders in Congress to hold test votes on repealing the Medicaid expansion—if not the Affordable Care Act in its entirety—to test the handful of Republicans who'd be making an indelible statement to their own constituents no matter how they voted.
Conservatives will mock this idea. And I happen to know that top aides to Democrats likewise think there's no margin in it for them. Why force vulnerable incumbents to remind voters of their support for the law, even if it puts other Republicans in the hot seat? No denying it. This would be political jiu-jitsu of the highest stakes.
But when his primary campaign is finally behind him, will Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell really be wild about voting to repeal a law that's cut Kentucky's uninsurance rate nearly in half? Or to eliminate the Medicaid expansion, which accounts for the vast majority of that coverage expansion? How would his base feel if he blocked that bill? Or voted against it? If Democratic leaders can figure out a way to force the same vote in the House, would Arkansas Representative and Senate hopeful Tom Cotton reaffirm his support for repeal? Or would he yield to whatever analysis has convinced him that he must respond to questions about the Medicaid expansion with incomprehensible twaddle.
Obamacare might still be under water in national polls. But the practical politics underlying it are shifting very rapidly. Republican flacks always backbite official ACA announcements on Twitter and in press releases. Yesterday was notable for how trivial and defensive their objections have become. Back in 1993, then-GOP operative Bill Kristol warned Republicans that they must meet Bill Clinton's health care plan with massive resistance, because if it passed, it would be popular -- a generational boon to liberalism that would fracture the conservative coalition. This was the moment he feared. Democrats should take note, and plan accordingly.
Brian Beutler is a senior editor at The New Republic.