When it comes to Obamacare, many Democrats take comfort in polls showing a small majority of voters, or at least a plurality, oppose repealing the Affordable Care Act. To them, that proves the Republicans' do-away-with-it position is out of sync with voters as this November's midterm elections approach.
The argument shows how far Democrats have retreated from the heady days when they rammed Obamacare through Congress over unanimous GOP opposition. Democrats can't argue that most people actually like the new law, and indeed many Democratic candidates have adopted a new mantra that it needs to be "fixed." But at least voters don't want to scrap it altogether.
The problem is, the truth may be a little more complicated than that. A new Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll asked voters whether various policy positions would make them more or less likely to vote for a candidate for Congress this November. For example, would respondents be more or less likely to vote for a candidate who "supports repealing the health care reform law?" Would they be more or less likely to vote for a candidate who "supports fixing and keeping the health care reform law?"
The Journal found that 47 percent of those surveyed would be more likely to support a candidate who favors repeal, while 32 percent would be less likely, and 19 percent said it made no difference either way.
On the other question, 45 percent said they would be more likely to support a candidate who supports keeping and fixing Obamacare, while 42 percent said they would be less likely, and 11 percent said it made no difference either way.
What to make of the numbers? On the most basic level, they show a few more people would be drawn to a candidate who favors repeal than a "keep and fix" candidate. They also show a few more would be turned off by a "keep and fix" candidate than would be turned off by a repeal candidate. And they show fewer voters would be bothered one way or the other by a repeal candidate than by a "keep and fix" candidate.
On a larger level, the numbers suggest more intensity on the repeal side. If there is an invigorated, passionate "hands off my Obamacare" faction, it's not very big.
That could be one reason why Democrats seem so vexed over how to handle Obamacare in midterm campaigning. Many have adopted the "keep and fix" approach used unsuccessfully by Democrat Alex Sink in this week's special election to fill the House seat in Florida's 13th Congressional District. The problem is, they're strong on the "keep" part but confused on the "fix" part.
When asked how she would fix Obamacare, Sink offered small suggestions that would not have addressed the higher premiums, higher deductibles, and narrower choices the law has imposed on millions of Americans. Other Democrats who have also pledged to fix Obamacare have offered even fewer ways to actually do it.
And they're not getting any help from the administration. When Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius appeared before the House Ways and Means Committee Wednesday, she was asked by Republican Rep. Tom Reed for "any suggestions … in areas that you want to fix the Affordable Care Act."
"Has there been any legislation from the administration sent up to Congress in regards to those fixes?" Reed asked.
"I have not sent legislation to Congress, no sir," Sebelius answered.
Sebelius noted that the administration has made unilateral changes in implementation. Republicans are well aware of that. But in terms of proposing legislation to fix or improve the president's landmark achievement, Democrats have offered next to nothing.
What changes could they advocate? Most likely they can't suggest anything really big, like repealing the individual mandate; most Democrats would see that as gutting the law, and any candidate who advocated it could risk party support. But perhaps Democrats could, as the blogger Mickey Kaus suggested, propose cutting back on mandated benefits like mental health treatment and pediatric dentistry, in the hope of bringing down premiums.
"Would [that] require Democrats to in effect admit error -- that they 'went too far' in building out Obamacare?" Kaus wrote. "Well, duh! Voters tend to like admissions of error, especially if they seem likely to lead to better policies in the future."
It's an open question whether voters would really welcome Democratic confessions of error in creating Obamacare. Most Democratic candidates probably don't want to learn the answer.
But they have to do something. It's conventional wisdom that Republicans who advocate getting rid of Obamacare have to offer an alternative. Now, it's just as true that Democrats who advocate fixing Obamacare have to offer a fix. Soon.