Playing right into GOP's hands: How Democrats could blow it big time on Obamacare

The right's Obamacare horror stories may often be false, but here's why they'll stick if the left doesn't change

Published March 19, 2014 11:44AM (EDT)

  (Jeffrey Malet,
(Jeffrey Malet,

Of all the decontextualized things President Obama has ever said that have featured prominently in conservative talking points -- "you didn't build that!"; his putative desire to "fundamentally transform" America -- none has generated as much fake outrage on the right as this decontextualized Nancy Pelosi quote from 2010: "We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it."

That was four years ago this month, during an otherwise unremarkable speech about the Affordable Care Act before the Legislative Conference for the National Association of Counties. Stripped from context it reads like a condescending and unusually callous commandment from a scheming elitist. Run along, little people, so we can seed our devious plans in a giant bill and pass it into law, at which point it'll be too late for you to stop them.

In reality, she was explaining something very basic about the timeline of the reforms themselves -- they were going to roll out slowly, and it would take some time before people actually began to enjoy the benefits. Here's the full context:

You’ve heard about the controversies within the bill, the process about the bill, one or the other. But I don’t know if you have heard that it is legislation for the future, not just about health care for America, but about a healthier America, where preventive care is not something that you have to pay a deductible for or out of pocket. Prevention, prevention, prevention — it’s about diet, not diabetes. It’s going to be very, very exciting. But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy.

Obviously things haven't gone as smoothly as she probably imagined they would, but her basic argument still rings mostly true today. In 2010, Obamacare was an abstraction to everyone, and to many a distraction from the country's more pressing needs. The economy was in the toilet, the Tea Party was ascendant and Democrats lost a historic number of seats that November. But her theory withstood the GOP tsunami, because the whole point was that things would change once the benefits kicked in.

Fast-forward to 2014, and I think the law's basically unrepealable. A lot of people are benefiting from it, though fewer I'm sure than Pelosi hoped. Republicans in Congress have stopped voting to repeal Obamacare root-and-branch and conservative writers like Byron York get in a huff when Democrats and liberals and mainstream media reporters inaccurately claim that the GOP has voted to repeal Obamacare 50 times. (York is, of course, less concerned when Republicans use the same false statistic to pacify their own demanding voters.)

But Obamacare still isn't popular. It's benefiting a lot of people, but it's also inconveniencing others. By design it's only going to affect a relatively small segment of the population, positively or negatively. It's been the focal point of an endless and unopposed agit-prop campaign. There isn't a strong constituency for repealing it, but there also isn't a strong constituency enamored of it. And here's where the shortcomings of Pelosi's theory, now revealed, are tempting Democrats and their allies into making an enormous error.

Here's new reporting from Slate's Dave Weigel:

The campaigns will simply have to find the stories on their own. They’ve done this before, and located blue-collar-looking people to make the argument for liberalism. Hey, they even did it with Obamacare, when a group called Know Your Care turned the story of one bagel shop owner into a happy cinema vérité case study. But Know Your Care’s been dormant for more than a year. Democrats need to find Obamacare success stories when few want to fund the work, during a midterm election when all the key races are on Republican turf, while the donors are already thinking about 2016.

What I see here is a fatal, and completely avoidable, combination of oversight, myopia and political cowardice.

The stable core of Pelosi's theory was that Obamacare's benefits would become it's opponents' liabilities. As unpopular as Obamacare is, if you run against it -- and thus for taking people's insurance away -- without a persuasive claim to a better idea, you eventually arrive in a box canyon. That is, unless Democrats go silent about it and don't make Republicans answer for the consequences of their opposition, in which case the way out is wide open.

Conservative writer Conn Carroll, with best intentions at heart, I'm sure, cautions that, "Democrats have been talking up the benefits of Obamacare for four years now. And it simply hasn't worked." His analysis elides the fact that for 3.75 of those years, very few people were benefiting. Many are now, and Democrats and their allies are making a huge blunder if they don't internalize the new reality and put some of those people they talk about in their speeches on air.

Political strategists are well trained to change the subject when the subject at hand isn't a winner. But Obamacare is, quite rightly, an issue that's too big to ignore, and won't easily be driven to second-tier status -- particularly given that all Republicans have to run on is that they didn't vote for Obamacare. Which is not to say Dems can't also run on the minimum wage, and immigration, and LGBT rights, and voting rights, and equal pay and the Koch brothers, and so on. But they can't leave the Obamacare question unanswered.

A few weeks ago, when I was doing some research and reporting for these stories about misleading Americans for Prosperity ads, I confidently asserted to one of my sources that Democrats and allied groups would ultimately counter the ads with equal-but-opposite ads of their own. Play the issue to a draw. Make GOP candidates disown repeal. Or at least try. It's only March, so maybe I'll yet be vindicated. But it looks bad for me at the moment, and worse for Democrats who are playing right into the GOP's hands.

By Brian Beutler

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

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2014 Elections Affordable Care Act Barack Obama Democrats Editor's Picks Gop Nancy Pelosi Obamacare The Right