Embrace what you fear: Democrats and Obamacare

President Obama embraces healthcare.gov and hilarity on Between Two Ferns
President Obama embraces healthcare.gov and hilarity on Between Two Ferns

It’s amazing, and sad, that we got to a place where providing affordable health care coverage to Americans is extremely controversial. Republicans evoke American’s evolution into a European-style socialist dystopia (if only), and Democrats are running scared.

The defeat of Democrat Alex Sink in the special election in Florida’s 13th congressional district is going to inspire a lot of gloating and painstaking analysis, largely because her (tepid) support of Obamacare was a major point of attack for her Republican opponent. John Cassidy at The New Yorker offers a solution that I wholeheartedly support:

Trying to pussyfoot around Obamacare was an awkward strategy, and, evidently, it didn’t work. If other Democrats are to avoid meeting Sink’s fate in November, they need something more convincing to say about the Affordable Care Act than “mend it, don’t end it,” which is now their default position. But what could that be?

Here’s a heretical idea. Rather than parsing the individual elements of the law, and trying to persuade voters on an à la carte basis, what about raising the stakes and defending the reform in its entirety as a historic effort to provide affordable health-care coverage to tens of millions of hard-working Americans who otherwise couldn’t afford it? Instead of shying away from the populist and redistributionist essence of the reform, which the White House and many Democrats in Congress have been doing since the start, it’s time to embrace it.

What would that mean? It would involve reaching out to the Democratic Party’s core voters—lower-income people, minorities, highly educated liberals—and portraying Obamacare as the fulfillment of the great human-rights project that began in the nineteen-thirties, under Franklin D. Roosevelt, and was expanded during the nineteen-sixties, under Lyndon Johnson. That message wouldn’t merely be more honest; it would be more effective in getting Democratic voters to turn out in November, which is essential if the Party isn’t to suffer a repeat of 2010.

While I personally would much rather see a single payer system, letting Republicans aggressively promote the vision of a post-Obamacare hellscape isn’t going to get us any closer to it. Meanwhile, sitting idly by while Republicans chip away at healthcare benefits and block Medicaid expansion means more people are denied much-needed healthcare in the meantime.

One clear lesson you can take from Sink’s campaign is that trying to distance oneself from Obamacare doesn’t get a candidate very far in the face of anti-healthcare hysteria. So Democrats have little to lose in aggressively fighting for a social program that benefits millions of Americans, and potentially a lot gain both politically and morally.

Elizabeth Warren provided an excellent example of this refusal to be cowed by Republican talking points when she campaigned during the tired makers vs. takers debate in 2012:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

It was energizing and inspiring for progressives around the country to see a high profile Democrat passionately defending her moral vision for this country. Cassidy offers a long list of positive impacts Obamacare will have for millions of Americans, and recommends bringing that message proactively to core voters. I hope some Democrats will take his advice, though I’m skeptical. It has the potential to galvanize the base at a critical time. And ultimately, who can really get excited about a party that won’t even stand up for the idea that no one in this country should die or go bankrupt because they don’t have health coverage?


Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

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