By Mike Lillis and Bob Cusack
A senior Democrat said Tuesday that the key to winning back the House in 2012 is selling the party's signature healthcare reform law.
In an interview with The Hill, Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said Democrats have "a fighting chance" of grabbing control of the lower chamber.
He added, however, that Democrats "can't run from [healthcare reform]. You have to go out and say, "This is what we did and this is why we did it.' And I think that you win like that."
Democrats were pounded on the 2010 campaign trail for supporting the controversial law, as Republicans launched a coordinated attack widely considered a leading factor in the drubbing the Democrats took at the polls that year.
But Clyburn, the third-ranking House Democrat, said Tuesday that his party's timid defense of the law before those elections -- not the law itself -- was the reason the Republican criticisms proved so successful with voters.
Two years later, with a number of the law's benefits firmly in place, Clyburn argued, Democrats can now use the law as an asset for winning back the House in November.
"Healthcare was a big positive that we allowed [Republicans] to turn into a negative. It could be a net positive if you run on it right," the 71-year-old legislator said.
"People have begun to live with some of these healthcare reforms, and the extent to which members go out and campaign on that, I think, will determine how well we do," Clyburn said in an hourlong interview in his office in the Capitol. "We lost 2010 because we lost the messaging."
Clyburn said Democrats need to describe a compelling narrative in defending the healthcare overhaul, urging his colleagues to "talk about personal experiences."
"I never miss the opportunity to tell people that, "Because of Barack Obama, that child born with diabetes no longer has a fear of [not] being able to get healthcare. That woman with breast cancer no longer has a fear of getting [coverage] dropped,'" Clyburn said.
Enacted in March 2010 after a months-long partisan battle, the Democrats' healthcare reform law was designed to cover tens of millions of uninsured Americans, largely by expanding Medicaid to low-income citizens and requiring most others to purchase private insurance.
The law was assailed by Republicans and conservative groups, who accused Obama and the Democrats of creating an unaffordable coverage system while encroaching on constitutionally guaranteed rights by requiring Americans to buy insurance.
The law also became a rallying cry for the Tea Party, which backed dozens of Republicans in successful runs to win House seats. When the smoke cleared, the Democrats had lost 63 seats and control of the House gavel.
Conservatives were quick to sue the Obama White House over the law -- suits that reached the Supreme Court in March. The high court is expected to rule on the law by the end of June.
Clyburn said Tuesday that the Supreme Court's decision doesn't concern him too much.
"I have no idea what the Supreme Court's going to do, but that's never dictated what I did before," said Clyburn, a leader in South Carolina's civil rights movement who is now serving his 10th term in Congress. "I didn't know what the Supreme Court was going to do when I was sitting in jails back in the 1960s, but that didn't stop me from doing what I knew to be the right thing to do."
The Democrats have already made healthcare a huge part of their 2012 platform, but the focus has largely been on criticism of the GOP's budget, which proposed sharp cuts to Medicare benefits.
Clyburn asserted Tuesday that Medicare can be made sustainable without cuts to healthcare services and hammered Republicans for proposing otherwise.
"If you're trying to make the government effective, why do you have to be punitive?" he said. "If you're trying to get a number out of Medicare, why does it have to come out of benefits? That's what the Republicans are all about and we have got to show the public what they really stand for."
Clyburn also took a jab at Obama for the president's endorsement last summer of a budget grand bargain -- a failed negotiation with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) -- that would have eroded benefits by raising Medicare's eligibility age.
Obama might have backed such a plan, Clyburn said, "but that doesn't mean I would have."
In late March, Clyburn was among only 38 House members who supported legislation modeled on recommendations from White House fiscal commission Chairmen Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. That proposal left the door open to some Medicare benefit cuts.
On Tuesday, the Palmetto State Democrat defended that vote, saying his vote was not an endorsement of every provision of the sweeping plan.
"It seems to me you can adopt the principles of Simpson-Bowles without adopting every single part of it," he said. "We could have substituted some parts of it."