Are you really listening?

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Democrats Do Have an Obamacare Problem

Christopher Flavelle writes editorials on health care, energy and environment for Bloomberg View. He was a senior policy analyst for Bloomberg Government and chief speechwriter for the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
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It's easy to be offended by Chuck Schumer's claim yesterday that Obamacare was a mistake, because it favored the interests of the poor ahead of Democrats' electoral fortunes. Harder is dismissing it, because other Democrats are probably thinking the same thing: What did Obamacare gain them?

Schumer, the senior Democratic senator from New York, argued that his party should have used its mandate in 2009 to pursue something that more plainly benefited the middle class -- a group that wasn't really hurt by the dysfunction of the health-care system. By contrast, focusing on those without coverage "made no political sense," especially because "only a third of the uninsured are even registered to vote."

You can quibble with the ethics of that point: Are the needs of the poor less important because they're less likely to vote? As Brian Beutler writes, you can also quibble with Schumer's premise: What other policy should Democrats have pursued first? And would it really have helped the middle class more than health-care reform, whose effects reach far beyond the poor?

But Schumer's critics risk missing the bigger concern. Obamacare has mostly been a policy success. Enrollment is high, costs are reasonable, and the sky hasn't fallen on employer-based insurance. Some people on the individual market saw their plans canceled, but for the most part it's working.

Yet the political payoff for that success has been close to zero. The problem isn't only, or even primarily, that the poor are less likely to vote; it's that Obamacare's benefits haven't translated into support for the law or the party that brought it into existence.

There are different explanations for that. One view is that people don't understand the law well enough to appreciate how it helps them personally. Another is that voters understand the law just fine, and object to higher taxes on the rich (and higher premiums for the healthy) to make insurance available for the sick and poor.

It doesn't much matter. Democrats, having achieved a goal that eluded their predecessors for decades, found out that it didn't benefit them. As Noah Gordon wrote in the Atlantic last week, maybe that shouldn’t have been such a surprise. But it still challenges a core tenet of the Democratic Party's philosophy: that advancing the interests of the less fortunate is compatible with electoral success.

The party's leaders, especially those considering a presidential run, have to ponder the dilemma Schumer raised: Are big social programs too risky to pursue, especially those that mostly help the poor? If so, what does it mean to be a liberal without tackling big problems? Where does that leave the remaining challenges of modern U.S. society, like the need for early childhood education, the declining fortunes of the working class and the collapsing retirement system?

Schumer is right about this much: Nobody wins when liberals stop thinking about elections and just focus on being righteous. The empty political payoff of Obamacare forces Democrats to reconsider what winning means. 

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:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net