By Alex Isenstadt
Scarred by years of Republican attacks over Obamacare, with more in store next year, Democrats have settled on an unlikely strategy for the 2014 midterms: Bring it on.
Party strategists believe that embracing the polarizing law -- especially its more popular elements -- is smarter politics than fleeing from it in the House elections. The new tack is a marked shift from 2010, when Republicans pointed to Obamacare as Exhibit A of Big Government run amok on their way to seizing the House from Democrats.
But the Democratic bear hug, reflecting a calculation it's probably impossible to shed their association with the law even if they wanted to, is still a high-wire public relations act. The White House has consistently struggled with messaging on Obamacare, hoping the public would gain an appreciation for the health care makeover as its benefits became apparent. That never really happened, but Democrats seem to be banking that it finally will.
The strategy will be put to the test as the law kicks in next year and is implemented in the months leading up to the election -- with the inevitable snafus and critical media coverage as the public gets its first up-close view of the massive undertaking.
California Rep. Scott Peters, a freshman Democrat who narrowly won election last year, said he doesn't agree with every part of the law. But he said he's not afraid of addressing health care -- far from it.
"I don't have any problem talking about it," Peters, who hails from a San Diego-area swing district, said in an interview. "I think it's a big issue. I think it's going to be talked about more than immigration or guns."
One early sign of the shift: After House Republicans brought a health care repeal measure to the floor last month -- the 37th time they've tried -- Peters joined a cast of other Democratic incumbents from competitive districts to criticize the GOP for the maneuver.
In 2010, Democratic congressional candidates in tough races actively promoted their opposition to the just-passed law, in some cases running ads blasting it. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee privately instructed members and candidates to change the subject if they were asked about the health care law in town hall meetings or on the campaign trail.
Look for that to change in 2014, say party strategists.
"In 2010, the benefits of ACA were theoretical and Democratic candidates ran away from it. If you were in a tough race and asked about health care," a senior Democratic official told POLITICO, "you changed the topic. In 2014, Democrats can talk about the positives, position themselves as consumer advocates to make it work and go on offense against Republicans for wanting to take the benefits away."
That doesn't mean every Democrat in the country will be singing from the mountaintops about how much they love the overhaul or running TV ads praising it -- there's still plenty in it that turns off voters in conservative-leaning districts where the battle for the House will be waged.
But Democratic strategists are convinced there's plenty to like in the law -- such as coverage for pre-existing conditions, eliminating lifetime caps on coverage and allowing children to stay on their parents' health care plans until they are 26 -- and are coaching lawmakers and candidates girding for tough races next year to hammer home those benefits.
"Fix the bad, keep the good, and move on" is the message House hopefuls are being advised to use. Offer help to voters navigating the ins and outs of the altered health care system. And flip the script on Republicans by accusing them of wanting to do away with the most popular provisions, the strategy goes.
As they lay the groundwork for the midterms, officials from both parties are betting that health care will play a starring role. In 2010, Republicans used the issue to tap into a vein of nationwide anger at Obama's far-reaching agenda. In 2012, health care took a backseat as the personalities of the presidential race, Obama and Mitt Romney, dominated the campaign.
In 2014, as the law moves from the theoretical to the practical, health care is once again likely to get top billing.
"By the time campaigns are being waged in 2014, the key parts of the law will be in place. It's a subject that inevitably will be fought over because events will drive it there," said Geoff Garin, a top Democratic pollster. "Given that, it's much better to be proactive and the party on offense than be on defense, as was the case in 2010."
"We're in a different place than we were four years ago. We're dealing with something that's been in law and the only real political question on health care is whether we're going forward or backward. Democrats feel confident that there is a very positive story to tell about the Affordable Care Act and its benefits for average Americans," Garin added.
Republicans, for their part, believe Obamacare -- along with the IRS scandal and other recent administration controversies -- will allow them to make a powerful argument to voters next year about the dangers of government overreach. They're confident that public wariness of the health care law is bound to grow over the next year and that it will spell trouble for Democrats running in moderate-to-conservative parts of the country.
Last month, the National Republican Congressional Committee conducted a poll in Utah Rep. Jim Matheson's suburban Salt Lake City and found that 72 percent want implementation of the law stopped or delayed. An NRCC survey in Illinois Rep. Brad Schneider's suburban Chicago district showed 57 percent favor stopping or delaying implementation.
"No issue should cause more sleepless nights for Democrats than Obamacare," said Brock McCleary, a GOP pollster who conducted the surveys for the NRCC.
"There's great concern about the ability to implement the law in seven months," McCleary said. "I think you have to search high and low for someone who says implementation is going great Whether you agree or disagree with the law, implementation is a problem."
The NRCC has already begun targeting Democrats, last week unveiling billboards tying four incumbents to the health care bill.
Democrats admit that implementation will face some hurdles and fully expect Republicans to spotlight those blemishes in TV ads.
But the White House and congressional Democrats have in recent weeks launched a messaging offensive aimed at blunting the anticipated GOP barrage. Before the Memorial Day recess, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi distributed a 78-page binder instructing members on how to sell the bill in their districts, and White House officials ranging from Obama to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack highlighted the benefits of the bill in a spree of university commencement speeches.
In the special House election last month in South Carolina, Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch distanced herself from Obamacare (she supported it, but with major caveats). But that race, which Colbert Busch lost to former Gov. Mark Sanford, was an outlier because the district is more conservative than the typical swing House district.
At the very least, Democrats say, four years' worth of scrutiny, bad press and political attacks have lowered expectations for success of the rollout of the new system. They figure a smoother-than-anticipated launch will play to their benefit.
"The reality is, this is coming on line," said John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster who has conducted extensive public opinion research on the health care bill. "The expectations are so low that the Obama administration will meet those expectations and possibly exceed them."