Say you're a Democratic member of Congress. You proudly cast your vote for Obamacare, you cheered when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hailed it as the achievement of a generation, and you scoffed at Republicans who vowed to repeal it. Now you're running for re-election, and a voter asks: What is the most important thing you've done in the past two years?
The answer should be easy. In passing the national healthcare bill, you accomplished something your party dreamed of for decades. It was your most important vote, and now is the time to take credit for it.
Except it's not.
Recently, top Democratic pollsters Celinda Lake and Stanley Greenberg conducted focus groups in Las Vegas, Nev.; Charlotte, N.C.; Philadelphia, Pa.; and St. Louis, Mo. They also conducted a national poll of 1,000 likely voters and an online poll of 2,000 more likely voters. They wanted to measure the public's feelings about Obamacare and help Democrats make an effective case for the bill they passed in March.
The researchers found what they call a "challenging environment," which is a nicer way of saying "disaster in the making." Voters simply aren't buying the Democratic case that healthcare reform will insure more than 30 million currently uninsured people and save money at the same time. And when they think about their own health care, people worry that reform will mean less, not more, availability of care, and at a higher cost.
Faced with that bad news, Lake and Greenberg came up with several recommendations for Democratic candidates. When talking about Obamacare, Democrats should "keep claims small and credible." They should promise to "improve" the law. They should avoid talking about policy and stick to "personal stories" of people who will benefit from Obamacare. And above all, the pollsters advise, "don't say the law will reduce costs and deficit."
It's a stunning about-face for a party that saw national health care as its signature accomplishment. "This is the first time we've seen from Democrats that they clearly understand they have a serious problem in terms of selling this legislation," says Republican pollster David Winston.
The reluctance to defend Obamacare as a cost-cutter and deficit-reducer is particularly telling. Wasn't that the No. 1 reason for passing the bill in the first place? "This legislation will ... lower costs for families and for businesses and for the federal government, reducing our deficit by over $1 trillion in the next two decades," President Obama said when he signed the bill into law on March 23. Now, Democrats are throwing that argument out the window.