Unskew this! Desperate GOP Obamacare ploy fails, again

Conservatives want to make midterms into an Obamacare referendum. Trouble is, it's working -- and voters know it

By Paul Rosenberg
Published April 29, 2014 5:44PM (EDT)
  (Jeffrey Malet, maletphoto.com/AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Charles Dharapak/Salon)
(Jeffrey Malet, maletphoto.com/AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Charles Dharapak/Salon)

"Counterintuitive but true: In HuffPollster's averages, GOP not leading in a single Senate race," Greg Sargent tweeted prophetically on April 17. His point did not immediately sweep through the Beltway Press — though it did get reposted at the end of a sober analysis by Markos Moulitsas at Daily Kos, “Win the Senate? Not as easy as Republicans think." By the next week, though, the New York Times was getting on board, with a Times/Kaiser Family Foundation poll showing Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor ahead by a whopping 10 points in his reelection race, and tight, but clearly winnable races in Kentucky, Louisiana and North Carolina.

Naturally, the President Romney crowd responded with a resurgence of unskewing, but that was just their backhanded way of acknowledging the suddenly altered reality: The old conventional wisdom is dead, long live the new conventional wisdom ... as soon as we figure out what it is. At the same time, adding to the shakeup in thinking, it's suddenly starting to dawn on people that Obamacare is working — and the Republicans have nothing to respond with as a result.

Not only was it announced that Obamacare sign-ups hit 8 million, almost simultaneously, Gallup reported that states that fully embraced Obamacare — setting up exchanges and expanding Medicaid — reduced their percentage of uninsured residents by 2.5 percent, compared to just 0.8 percent for states that resisted on one or both counts. The success of the law and the failure of opposition to it came as a one-two punch. And now we're even starting to see Democratic healthcare ads.

An independent expenditure ad by the pro-Begich group Put Alaska First [video here] featured breast cancer survivor Lisa Keller, and stresses Obamacare's coverage for people with preexisting conditions. "I was lucky I beat cancer, but the insurance companies still denied me health insurance just because of a preexisting condition," Keller says in the ad. "I now have health insurance again because of Mark Begich. Because he fought the insurance companies, so that we no longer have to."

It's been known all along that the individual features of Obamacare are far more popular than “Obamacare” itself. Finally, it seems, the law's supporters are starting to figure out how to use that to their advantage. The same sort of thing is happening in Arkansas, where Mark Pryor's challenger, Tom Cotton, wants to repeal Obamacare, but hasn't figured out how to square that with kicking hundreds of thousands of folks off of insurance. So the Arkansas Democratic Party tweeted out the image, along with the message, “Over 155,000 of Arkansans now have private health insurance. Tom Cotton wants to take it away from them.”

It's long been a truism that there would come a point where anti-Obamacare politics would become toxic — when too many people would lose too much with the law's repeal. But truisms have turned out to be false before. The GOP's superior spin machine and dogged determination have strung things out far longer than anyone initially imagined. Now, all of the sudden, it seems like that turning point has finally come -- not solely because of the reality on the ground, but in part because Democratic political actors have freed themselves from their reactive crouch, and have started taking some easy layups, which they could have been scoring for some time now.

It's just the sort of shift that could easily become catching, and spread like wildfire — though it hasn't happened yet. The results of a survey of congressional Democratic websites written up by Sam Stein and Sabrina Siddiqui for Huffington Post “tell the story of a party still skeptical of the law's political benefits, but overwhelmingly committed to upholding President Barack Obama's signature piece of legislation,” they wrote. House Democrats were much more eager to express support, “with many members overstating the critical role they played in its passage,” while Senate candidates preferred to stay mum: “the majority of Senate candidates avoid mentioning Obamacare at all.” But that could mean that these new, more savvy, more specific and more popular arguments could rapidly spread — if anyone's paying attention.

As well they should. It couldn't be clearer that things have started to change, although how much, and in what direction is still rather murky, with months and months ahead of us before the campaigns even shift into high gear. Instead of prematurely trying to predict the content of things to come, let's take this moment in flux to consider the forces potentially shaping the context of things to come. We've already looked at some of the new winds at the Democrats' backs, but what about the GOP?

There are still four main factors favoring the GOP, the first three of which are well-known: 1) They have a good map this year. 2) Their base voters show up in off-year elections far more reliably than Democratic voters do. 3) For most of the GOP base voters, it doesn't much matter that Obamacare is working. All this means that the GOP very well might not change anything much, even with weaker polls and the increasingly evident success of Obamacare. And a further reason for this last factor: 4) Republicans are more intensely tribal than Democrats are.

This is not simply a matter of group loyalty or identification, but a question of how they understand the world and their place within it. We can best understand what this means in terms of "mythos" and "logos," two distinctly different ways of knowing, which bestselling author Karen Armstrong has masterfully explained in the introduction to "The Battle for God." Logos was "the rational, pragmatic and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world," she explained, while mythos had to do with ultimate meanings and purpose:

Myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning. Unless we find some significance in our lives, we mortal men and women fall very easily into despair. The mythos of a society provided people with a context that made sense of their day-to-day lives; it directed their attention to the eternal and the universal.

Moreover, mythos is not just a logos with a different focus, she explained; it's something experienced and made real in an entirely different way.

Myth only became a reality when it was embodied in cult, rituals and ceremonies, which worked aesthetically upon worshipers, evoking within them a sense of sacred significance and enabling them to apprehend the deeper currents of existence.

My point is not that Democrats use logos and Republicans use mythos. That would be far too simplistic. We all use both of them in our lives, but in varying degrees and different ways. What's relevant here is that conservative tend to use mythos much more in shaping their political identities and activities, while liberals use logos much more in the political realm.

The reason all that matters here is simple: The public opinion shifts and data about Obamacare's success I cited seem to provide a straightforward rationale for making changes in the campaign. That's what logos would obviously dictate. But the conservative mythos doesn't handle change well, and their “unskewing polls” exercise needs to be seen, in part, as a ritual reinforcement of their system of meanings. From a (typically liberal) logos-based perspective, this probably won't help them win more seats this cycle, though other mythos-sustaining activities very well might. But even if unskewing polls doesn't help them directly, it could still help them compared to the alternative — by staving off uncertainty, doubt, profound ideological confusions and higher levels of internal discord, all of which could be even more damaging to their chances. The GOP's de facto collective rejection of last year's autopsy recommendations clearly shows a preference for staying the course, so it shouldn't be surprising to see it prevail here as well. Besides, irrationally resisting change — isn't that the very essence of conservatism?

There's more, of course. Even if Republicans don't win control of the Senate, resisting the evidence of logos could still serve them well when it comes to influencing the political climate and the shaping of conventional wisdom — particularly if Democrats don't take the initiative themselves. At the New Republic, Brian Beutler has a story explaining why Republicans would want to pretend this election is a referendum on Obamacare. They "want the media to be primed to adopt one narrative in particular: that a GOP victory in November will be synonymous with a mandate to reopen the legislative debate over Obamacare." Even if the odds are shifting against them, it still makes sense to keep the chance of this prize alive. After all, if they let go of running against Obamacare, then that further opens up the possibility that the Democrats might start running for something. And that's what the Republicans are really afraid of.

There are already growing signs of what that could be. Start with the newly recognized ways of running for the most popular aspects of Obamacare, and then add on different ways of weaving together multiple strands of the anti-economic inequality argument: Support for hiking the minimum wage, gender pay equity, and cracking down on wage theft, just to name a few. Those aren't Senate issues, you say? Perhaps they wouldn't be in a Senate where the GOP didn't spend so much time trying to cripple the executive branch, and thwart its every more. By waging an all-out war against Obama, the GOP has inadvertently invited the Democrats to run a mythos-based campaign of their own: support us in supporting the president to fight for a fairer economy for all.

There are already people out there writing ads in that spirit. It only takes one to strike the right chord. And once things start to definitively shift, the conventional wisdom will have to adjust once again.

Obamacare's Poll Numbers Improve In Republican Districts

Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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