POLITICS
03/24/2017 12:40 pm ET

Democrats Find Political Upside But Little Joy In GOP's Health Care Mess

"I’m not going to describe something as a ‘win’ in which there’s a chance that 24 million people lose their health insurance."

WASHINGTON ― House Republicans’ struggle to repeal and replace Obamacare has left Democrats in what strategists describe as a conflicted emotional state.

For years, they have borne the brunt of attacks over the Affordable Care Act, on top of the electoral ramifications of the law’s unpopularity. With Republicans now finding out just how difficult it is to revamp the health care system, there is a sense of vindication among those who did it first. There is also a bit of delight over the possibility that the Republican Party will now be responsible for a health care system that has proven politically difficult to own.

But any mildly positive feelings are masked and tempered by fears of what will happen if lawmakers actually do pass a bill ― mainly the havoc it would inflict on people dependent on care and insurance.

“We will certainly hold them accountable in either case,” said Tyler Law, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “But I’d be remiss to say ― I’m not going to describe something as a ‘win’ in which there’s a chance that 24 million people lose their health insurance.” 

Anyone getting joy out of this process has no idea which way is up. Matt Canter, former DSCC communications director

The repeal and replacement process of Obamacare has, at a fundamentally political level, given Democrats a clear opportunity: Either the Republican Party passes a bill that polls at a paltry 17 percent, or they fail to do so and in the process expose themselves as inept in their ability to govern, even with control of all branches of government.

“There’s no question that it’s a terrible deal for the American people, first and foremost, if it passes,” said Adam Hodge, who previously served as communications director at the Democratic National Committee. “But it’s also made it crystal clear for voters of what the Republican agenda is and what consequences it would have for their ability to get health care. ... The damage to Republicans politically is already bearing fruit.”

When the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, voters punished Congressional Democrats in the midterms, largely in response to the law. But today, the GOP can’t comfort itself in arguing that the party made a historic policy gain in exchange for electoral losses.

Though they feel increasingly buoyed about their prospects in the 2018 elections, many Democratic activists feel petrified about what will happen to health care in America even if the current GOP bill fails to pass. The Trump White House could still damage Obamacare through administrative decision-making.

“Anyone getting joy out of this process has no idea which way is up,” said Matt Canter, former communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “We knew this party could not govern, but they can certainly do a whole lot of damage. And we are just starting to see that. At the end of the day, people will get hurt here. It is just an open question about how and what the mechanism will be.”

The Democrats have kept their gloating over the Republican Party’s difficulty in handling health care reform relatively constrained, though there’s been some schadenfreude. On Thursday, for example, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) repeatedly referred to Trump ― who prides himself as the best negotiator ― as a “rookie” who couldn’t close a deal, and poked fun at her GOP colleagues for their inability to hold their caucus together.

The Democratic National Committee also took the unusual step Friday of blasting out a story by Breitbart News, playing up the rift between the White House and the news outlet previously run by Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon. Breitbart has been outspoken in its opposition to the GOP legislation.

Democrats are already gearing up to make Republicans own their problems, arguing that they are the ones who got themselves into this mess. The DCCC has been hammering 14 vulnerable Republicans who voted to move the repeal legislation forward in committee and has been stockpiling quotes by GOP lawmakers who have made promises to their constituents about how great repealing Obamacare will be for them.

Others have cautioned that Democrats may find themselves in a difficult position of having to help the Republican Party clean up the mess they create, not just because Democrats will continue to take some of the blame for Obamacare’s shortcomings but also because their constituents will be turning to them for help.

“I think it is 75 percent horrifying because tens of millions of people’s lives and insurance are at stake and 25 percent gratifying, which isn’t really the right word,” said Eddie Vale, a longtime activist who has worked on labor issues. “You have to set aside that tens of millions of people’s health care is at stake to get to the point where, from a purely political standpoint, it is a win-win.”

Want more updates from Amanda Terkel? Sign up for her newsletter, Piping Hot Truth, here.

CONVERSATIONS