Can Democrats Run On Obamacare Now?

by evanmcmurry

A person unfamiliar with American electoral politics could be forgiven for watching the 2012 campaign and concluding that neither of these candidates had much of a health care record. Romney, of course, pretended he’d never heard of his own health care program for most of the campaign, but even Obama seemed reluctant to bring up his signature legislative achievement when he was anywhere but an Obama rally. It’s a strange world in which the two men who had more than anybody in two generations to do with achieving the goal of universal health care spent next to no time campaigning on it.

We turn now to the campaign of Heidi Heitkamp, whose squeaker of a victory in the North Dakota Senate race added to the Dems’ surprising Senate haul. Heitkamp made a national name for herself over the summer when, faced with millions of dollars’ worth of Crossroads GPS ads tarring her with Obamacare, she decided to double down, cutting an ad in which she embraced the health care bill, though not wholeheartedly, and making a passionate and personal case for it based on her own medical history. It was a daring feint—wearing her Super PAC criticism like a badge—and it worked: Heitkamp suffered no slump in the polls following the ad, instead increasingly gaining on her opponent, the Honorable Guy Whose Name I Never Knew, to the point that he tracked closer to her position on Obamacare following its ratification by the Supreme Court.

Was Heitkamp’s win following her adoption of the health care bill a fluke? Maybe. But there’s little to suggest so. Heitkamp was not so strong a candidate that she could assume an unpopular position with impunity, nor was her opponent so weak that he Todd Akined or Richard Mourdocked up. North Dakota is a red state; the Dems had no business winning it, Obamacare or no. This isn’t to say that running on Obamacare elected Heitkamp, but at the very least it didn’t hurt her, a fear that sent many Democrats running from the bill in 2010, and at best it helped her with certain constituencies not primed to see health care as a government takeover of Medicaid.

Fast-forward to 2014, which looks, on its face, brutal to Democrats. Dems are defending an ungodly number of vulnerable Senate seats, many of them in red states; and midterms tend to bring out a much less amenable electorate, as 1994 and 2010 show.

However! All economists predict that by 2014 we should be in a fully resurgent economy—as Matt Yglesias pointed out just before the election, whoever won on Tuesday would inherit an economy that, while not a model of growth, can’t help but look robust in comparison to the last five years. And Yglesias added that if Obama won, this recovery would be seen entirely a product of his policies. Not only will Dems now go into 2014 with an economic recovery at their back, but they’ll be able to claim credit for its winds. This won’t be a repeat of 2010.

Also set to happen before November 2014 is the full implementation of ACA, including the state-level exchanges that make up the majority of its reforms. The ACA—can we go back to calling it that, now?—broke 50% approval for the first time after it survived the high court, and though it remains unpopular with half the country, it’s difficult to imagine its reception anything but improving as its reforms begin to take effect. “Obamacare” as a abstracted boogeyman might scare voters, but the reason the bill has long bedeviled Republican efforts to repeal it is that its individual components are quite popular. And now that the GOP has absolutely zero chance of repealing it, thanks to Obama’s reelection and the Democratic retention of the Senate, expect the vociferous opposition to the ACA to fade over the next two years. There’s simply too little to be gained from campaigning against it.

Which means there’s all the more reason to campaign on it. Heitkamp was the first candidate to wager that voters would reward a party that had produced legitimate health care reform. It would be nice the rest of that party made the same wager and finally started reaping the reward of the biggest legislative achievement in recent memory.