Everyone's talking about Obamacare today, since it is the deadline for signing up for health insurance in the first "open enrollment" period for the marketplace exchanges. The final numbers aren't in yet (and won't be for at least another few weeks), but from the numbers already released, the Obamacare website seems to have made an impressive turnaround from its ignoble beginnings. What will be interesting about the final numbers is that since Obama announced late last week that they had already hit the 6 million mark, we'll be able to see exactly how big the wave of last-minute signups has been for the final four days of the official signup period. If the final number comes in at, say, 6.5 million, then half a million people will have successfully signed up in four days. That is a small miracle in and of itself, since on the first day the website went live, it only managed to sign up a total of six people.
But as I said, I'll wait until the final numbers are out to comment on them. We'll have plenty of time for analysis for the rest of the year, as better and better data is made available on Obamacare's overall effect on the health insurance marketplace. Instead, I'd like to look at the political side of things today. Republicans have made no secret of the fact that "Obamacare is a miserable failure!" is going to be their go-to campaign slogan this year. After a win in a special House election in Florida, they are now absolutely convinced that this is the winning strategy for this year.
Democrats, on the other hand, would prefer to change the subject to the economy, and which political party is on the side of Main Street and the average American worker. This is a contrast Democrats are confident of drawing, since it is pretty obvious they enjoy a natural advantage on this playing field. Just look at who is for and against raising the minimum wage, to give the most obvious example. But Democrats aren't going to be able to just ignore all the anti-Obamacare noise from the Republicans, nor should they (if they're smart). Because Democrats need to get a lot more proactive out on the campaign trail, if they have any hope of winning midterm races. In particular, Democrats should mount a massive ad campaign to counter all the ads the Koch brothers are funding. Doing so might be easier than you think.
The key is playing offense rather than defense. Now, due to the fractured nature of midterms (with hundreds of individual races across the country), there will be candidates who will be more successful at doing so than others. Already, I've seen two great ads Democrats are running -- one from West Virginia and one from Michigan. The West Virginia ad localizes the issue admirably, pointing out that the Republican candidate is for repealing black lung benefits -- a major issue in coal-mining country. This is precisely what such ads need to accomplish: making the point that repealing Obamacare would mean ending all the good it has achieved. If Democrats can get Republicans defending the specifics of their "Repeal!" stance, then they will have shifted the debate in a major way.
The Democratic Party headquarters should be actively searching for as many personal stories of people who have had good experiences that would have been impossible without Obamacare. Since the Koch brothers have already been attempting to do this with negative stories (not to much success, since most of their ads' overblown claims have fallen apart under close scrutiny), Democrats need to fight back with real-life stories of their own.
The ads would almost write themselves, since the personal stories would be the main script. Here are a few examples (which are all rather generic -- the individual stories would vary a bit, of course):
"My name is Jean Grey, and I am retired. I have saved more and more money the past few years, because I don't have to pay as much for prescription drugs as I used to. The 'donut hole' in the prescription drug coverage is now closing, meaning I save more each year on the drugs I must buy to keep alive -- hundreds and hundreds of dollars in savings, which go right into my pocket rather than to the drug companies. Why would anyone in their right mind want to end this program, when it saves so many seniors so much money?"
"I'm a mother of three. When my eldest child finished school, he started a small business of his own, which made me proud. But then he was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness which required hundreds of thousands of dollars to treat. I thank God I was able to keep him on my health insurance policy through his early 20s, because being self-employed he could not afford coverage on his own. Keeping him on my policy saved him from having to declare bankruptcy, and quite possibly saved his life as well. Why would Republicans want to kick children like mine off their parents' health insurance? I just don't understand that position, after experiencing what our family has gone through."
"I have had diabetes since I was a child. When I lost my job a few years ago, I also lost my health insurance. When I tried to buy insurance, I was told I had a pre-existing condition and would have to pay more money than I make each month to buy coverage. Several insurance companies just turned me down flat. Today, I am insured once again and know that never again will I be put in that position -- because it is now against the law for insurance companies to refuse me. Unless, of course, Republican Tim Jones gets elected, since he has made a campaign promise to make it once again impossible for me to get insured. This is why I'm voting for John Smith for Congress."
"Ten years ago, I was paralyzed. I had good health insurance at the time -- or so I thought. But my treatments soon hit a so-called 'lifetime cap,' and my insurance was cancelled. I couldn't find any other affordable insurance, due to my condition. Now, once again, I have good insurance, and I am secure in the knowledge that 'lifetime caps' have been abolished under the law. I know that I will never be thrown off my insurance again. Why in heaven's name would anyone want to take that away from me and the thousands like me in this state? I no longer live in fear that my next treatment will be my last treatment. Instead, I live in fear that Republicans will succeed in taking us back to the days when I had such worries. Vote Democratic. I know I'm going to, and I know exactly why."
There is no shortage of personal stories like this out there. The Democrats should be actively seeking such stories and presenting them to the public. Vetting the stories will be important, to avoid the egg-on-face nature of many of the anti-Obamacare ads, but this shouldn't be all that hard to accomplish.
Millions of people have had good experiences with various different aspects of Obamacare. Thousands of them (at a guess) would be more than willing to share their stories publicly. Now that the signup period is over, the Obamacare website and insurance exchanges will fade in the public's memory. As we get closer to the fall election, people will be much more interested in hearing such real-world examples of what, precisely, Obamacare is doing for them. The stories can and should be tailored to the individual races, but even that's not too hard to accomplish (as that West Virginia ad shows so well). Focusing in on things important to the constituency's demographics is important, as is telling stories from local citizens.
The Democratic Party should be helping this effort at all levels. They should be the ones actively seeking such positive stories, they could handle most of the vetting process, and they could share all this information with the candidates' campaigns. Republicans, as previously mentioned, are making no bones about the fact that they consider Obamacare their biggest issue this year. Democrats cannot simply abandon the field to the Koch ads. They need to strike back, and go on the offense, now that the initial signup period is over (and will soon be yesterday's news). Forcing Republicans to explain why they want to remove benefits from various individuals means putting them on defense. They will attempt to scramble around, saying "oh, but we'd keep all the good stuff," without giving any specifics as to how they'll be accomplishing such a feat. Which works to Democrats' advantage.
But only if these stories are told. Only if Democrats can get the word out. Right now, they should be starting a massive effort to do so in as many tight races as they possibly can. Explaining precisely what "Repeal!" actually will mean to everyone will blunt the effectiveness of the slogan. Obamacare -- one way or another -- is going to be an issue in the midterm elections. Democrats can either try to ignore this reality, or they can try to fight back and tell their side of the story. The choice should be obvious.
-- Chris Weigant
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant