MIAMI, FL - FEBRUARY 13: Hisham Uadadeh enrolls in a health insurance plan under the Affordable Care Act with the help of A. Michael Khoury at Leading Insurance Agency on February 13, 2014 in Miami, Florida. Numbers released by the government showed that about 3.3 million people signed up for health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act through the end of January. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Catch of the Day: Obamacare's Vagueness as a Political Issue

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist covering U.S. politics. A political scientist, he previously wrote "A Plain Blog About Politics." He is co-editor of "The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012."
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Greg Sargent gets a Catch today for another must-read post on how Obamacare is being used by candidates in this election cycle (disclosure: I wrote for Greg's Plum Line before coming to View).

Essentially, we now have a campaign based on the Obamacare/Affordable Care Act split: Republicans run ads bashing Obamacare but duck all the details (such as whether they support or oppose Medicaid expansion). Or in some cases they support the provisions of Obamacare while bashing the law. Democrats, on the other hand, are beginning to refer vaguely to having supported "a law" (which they don't name) that does all kinds of popular things, such as requiring coverage for pre-existing conditions. Click over to Greg's piece for all the details.

As I've said, it's a mistake to insist that either side of this public opinion divide is the "real" opinion. It's possible for people to oppose Obamacare but support (almost) all of its provisions. Both sides of that inconsistent opinion are just as real.

And campaign rhetoric and positioning can be extremely important post-election, even if this has zero effect on the actual vote. Republicans who run against "Obamacare" but back off when challenged on any of the popular elements of it probably wouldn't go after those provisions if elected. The closer something gets to an explicit promise, the more it winds up constraining a politician. Moreover, the fact that these Republican politicians, who surely have conducted extensive polling, are reluctant to go after specific features of the law suggests they feel pressured to avoid what they see as unpopular positions.

This works in the other direction, too -- but this is where the ACA is helped by the status quo bias that is so strong in the U.S. system. If the ACA were up for a vote today, a lot of Democrats might defect. But that's not going to be a question that Democrats will have to vote yes on in 2014, or 2015, or even in 2017, when there might be a Republican in the White House.

None of which, of course, says anything about whether the ACA is a good law or a bad one. Just that public opinion, including the quite real and probably permanent unpopularity of "Obamacare," isn't going to lead to repeal. That remains as dead as it has been for years. And whatever else happens in November, Obamacare isn't going to sink the Democrats.

Also? Nice catch!

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net