The anti-Ted Cruz scare campaign has its limits

There's no spinning the Obamacare mess away. The best way out: Fixing the law and proving the haters wrong

By Brian Beutler

Published November 21, 2013 12:44PM (EST)

  (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Let me start by being as clear as possible about the fact that the Affordable Care Act will be a lasting political liability for Democrats, an unforced blemish on social liberalism, and a tragedy for millions of uninsured people if it isn't ultimately made to work in most places.

For a more detailed explanation, see this piece from last month on the fascinating, but ultimately unfortunate future of healthcare reform if isn't working and widely used in the 34 states with federally facilitated exchanges very soon.

I think a clear-eyed sense of the enormous stakes suffuses the majority of liberal journalism. Most of the law's supporters aren't in denial about the consequences of failure. If they were, they wouldn't be spilling gallons of ink each day on the importance of getting working and of restoring some degree of public trust in the program.

The law's critics, by contrast, have by and large been disinclined to consider outcomes they wouldn't like. Beyond the unbridled satisfaction they take in the botched rollout, their coverage has been marked these past few weeks by the invisibility of the law's beneficiaries and an unwillingness to broach the possibility that the law might eventually work. That feeds a belief system on the right that Obamacare can't work -- that fixing the law is an impossibility. Don't believe me? Here's a brief glimpse into my Twitter mentions column:

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[embedtweet id="403204007574794240"]

[embedtweet id="403204045537431552"]

[embedtweet id="403204102512848896"]

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[embedtweet id="403205749607641088"]

[embedtweet id="403206967318953984"]

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I could go on and on and on.

There's no better antidote to this kind of thinking than actual success. But right now we don't have success. So instead, as Greg Sargent reported on Wednesday, Democrats will argue that early missteps have left the country at a crossroads -- the same way they framed the 2012 election as a choice between two visions of the country's future.

[T]he Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is set to launch a new campaign designed to refocus the debate on the Republican position on health care, which Dems will widely label as ”Cruz Care.”

With Ted Cruz set to roll out his own health plan — one that will probably look like the usual grab bag of GOP reform ideas, which just aren’t a reform alternative to Obamacare – Dems plan to tar GOP Senate candidates across the country with it, by hitting them as proponents of “Cruz Care.” Many GOP candidates also embraced Cruz’s Obamacare-driven government shutdown.

This is a stretch, and an unnecessary one. Set aside the fact that Cruz's plan doesn't exist yet, or that most GOP healthcare reform ideas are focus-grouped to sound decent even though they're vacuous, or that in 2010, panicky Democrats ran against Paul Ryan's plan to privatize Medicare in a challenging environment and it didn't work.

The truth is, Democrats are already benefiting (to the extent that they can be described as "benefiting") from the fact that Republicans have no alternative to the Affordable Care Act.

I don't know what the polling would look like if Republicans had anything to offer the public other than complete repeal. But that's really all they have to offer. The pre-Obamacare healthcare system was terrible, though. And even if it hadn't been, I think voters understand that much like you can't unshake salt and pepper back into neat layers, repeal wouldn't restore the status quo ante. It would leave an even bigger mess than we have right now.

For all the damage the ACA rollout has done to Obama and Democrats in the public eye, polling on the law itself has held remarkably consistent over the past several weeks. It's taken a hit, but not a huge one. Obviously many fewer people think the law is working well and should remain unchanged. But those strong supporters haven't leapt into the repeal camp. They want the law to be tweaked until it's working. Together they still comprise a majority of the country.

In other words, the Democrats' "keep and fix" pitch is durable, and enjoys greater appeal than starting over does. If you're a nervous Democrat, that might feel too much like muddling through. But in the end, Obamacare's either going to get fixed or it's not going to get fixed. If it doesn't, vague allusions to "CruzCare" aren't going to ease the consequences. If it does get fixed, then, as you can see above, conservatives will be blindsided. And they'll have no answer for millions of newly insured people whose benefits they want to take away.

Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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Affordable Care Act Barack Obama Democrats Editor's Picks Healthcare Healthcare Reform Obamacare Ted Cruz