GOP's self-defeating myopia: Why its Obamacare mania is now a gift to Democrats

Turns out the political conventional wisdom around the Affordable Care Act is wrong -- and the right may be sorry

Published March 31, 2014 2:44PM (EDT)

Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz                                      (AP/Steven Senne/Reuters/Yuri Gripas/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz (AP/Steven Senne/Reuters/Yuri Gripas/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Here's a riddle for anyone who thinks the politics of Obamacare are straightforward, and toxic for Democrats. How is it possible, in defiance of public rebuke, widespread misinformation and other headwinds, that insurance enrollment is surging in just about every state in the country?

I suppose it's possible that these millions of new beneficiaries were all supporters of the law to begin with and the surge doesn't hint at a more complex public opinion. But I don't think that's right.

Over the past several days we've been presented with a wealth of evidence that the conventional theory of the Affordable Care Act and the coming midterm elections is flawed.

Going back to last year, before they knew how poor the rollout of the law would be, administration officials knew they'd have to circumvent traditional media to encourage enrollment. But perhaps because the rollout was so bad, the press has been less helpful to the cause of the ACA than the administration expected. Not that it's the press's job to encourage enrollment, exactly, but a profusion of glitches and delays has given reporters a lot to write about aside from subsidies and other ACA benefits.

Yet despite all that, the enrollment rate is way up over the past several weeks, due almost entirely to external messaging, organizing and advertising on the part of the administration and its allies. And apparently it's been pretty successful.

The outreach bears striking resemblance to effective Democratic campaign operations. But its effectiveness -- reflected in the numbers -- suggests that there's a large, easily motivated constituency for Obamacare and an even greater demand for its benefits.

Democrats and their allies are also, finally, defending the law in earnest and using the GOP's opposition, and repeal obsession, as a liability.

See for instance this ad:

And this one, via Greg Sargent:

Republicans don't have a good answer to the shifting on-the-ground reality, so they're denying it altogether.

“I don't think it means anything," Sen. John Barrasso, R- Wyo., told Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday. "I think they're cooking the books on this.”

I doubt that this kind of intentional blindness to the law's successes can withstand another seven months on the campaign trail. Which means Republicans will either have to confront reality eventually, or shake up their strategy pretty dramatically, so that single-minded hatred of the ACA isn't the beginning and end of it.

But even if I'm wrong about all this -- even if Republicans somehow manage to avoid grappling with the full truth of Obamacare, in all of its complexity, forever -- it isn't certain that running relentlessly against a cartoon version of the law for the rest of the year will pay huge dividends.

Last week, the Kaiser Family Foundation released new data from its healthcare tracking poll. There are a lot of goodies in there, but two of them cut against the idea that Obamacare is a big, enduring political liability for Democrats. First, the law's favorables are climbing and unfavorables are falling. It's still underwater, but recovering from the political damage it suffered during the humiliating outage.

But more important, a majority of people in the country (53 percent) are just exhausted by the repeal obsession and want the parties to move on to other issues. Forty-two percent think the country needs to continue to debate the law.

Where things get really interesting, though, is in the ideological breakdown of that split. It's not that the 42 percent solely represents GOP activists, energized and ready to go elect some Republicans. About half of all people who have unfavorable views of the law think the country ought to move on anyhow. And a large minority of the people who want the country to be focused on ACA are people who actually like it.

Saying "we didn't pass Obamacare" over and over again probably draws base voters out to the polls. But it's not all upside for the GOP. And if Obamacare fatigue creates the space Democrats need to make the election about multiple policy issues, then Republicans will have a huge problem on their 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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