Editor’s Note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and served as a counselor to Clinton in the White House. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Joni Mitchell was right. “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
On the 12th anniversary of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), former President Barack Obama returned to the White House, once again standing shoulder to shoulder with President Joe Biden, his former number two, who is now managing a number of domestic and global challenges. The former President spoke of how difficult the ACA was to pass – and the crucial roles played by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the late-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in rounding up the necessary votes for it.
While it is useful to remind the American people of the benefits of the ACA, there is a more important message to deliver – and Biden did so with the necessary intensity. Rather than just praising what Democrats accomplished through the ACA, the President explained how Republicans could undermine those gains and leave Americans worse off – a framing his Democratic colleagues would be wise to take note of.
“We need to keep up the fight,” Biden said. “Mr. President, since you signed the law, (our Republican colleagues) haven’t stopped for one second. Multiple court challenges, you mentioned sabotage from the previous administration (and) over 70 attempts to repeal the law by Republicans in Congress.” He concluded, 12 years later, the GOP have “not stopped their attack on this life-saving law.”
Indeed, Biden is correct. The GOP is relentless when it comes to the ACA. Last month, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin told the conservative Breitbart News Radio that if his party takes control of Congress in the midterms and the White House in 2024, Republicans would “repeal and replace Obamacare.”
Knowing that Obamacare is a complex law few people fully understand, Biden offered clear examples of what would be lost if the bill were repealed. He said, “(i)t means 100 million Americans with pre-existing conditions can once again be denied health care coverage by the insurance companies.” Biden also emphasized that tens of millions of Americans, including young people under 26 who might no longer be able to stay on their parents’ insurance plans, could lose coverage – and premiums, he added, “are going to go through the roof.”
Indeed, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.
Biden’s messaging – and tone – mark a crucial shift in Democratic strategy, one which acknowledges the lived reality of American voters.
Many Democrats seem to think they can prevail if voters can just see what a great job they have done. However, voters will not listen to a message of the party’s accomplishments.
And, to be frank, a March 2022 NBC News poll reports a staggering 71% of Americans say we are headed in the wrong direction. So, instead of telling voters they are mistaken in their thinking, Democrats must acknowledge voters’ anger and anxiety – and redirect it toward the Republican Party.
Biden may not be popular, but he knows the ACA is. According to the latest Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 55% of Americans have a favorable opinion of it – and that percentage only rises among independent and Democratic voters. Describing the risk of losing it is good politics.
Biden has been reluctant to hammer Republicans, even as some viciously accused his stellar Supreme Court nominee, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, of being soft on child pornography sentencing. Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri went so far as to accuse her of “a pattern of letting child porn offenders off the hook for their appalling crimes.” (A CNN review concluded “Jackson has mostly followed the common judicial sentencing practices in these kinds of cases.”)
When your opposition is willing to lie about you, the least you can do is tell the truth about them. And, on Tuesday, Biden told the truth about the GOP and their record on health care. Democrats should build a campaign message around the threat Republicans pose rather than seek an attaboy from people who are in no mood to thank anyone.
I speak from experience. Heading into the 1994 midterm elections, my then-boss, former President Bill Clinton, wanted every Democratic member of Congress to carry around cards on which we’d printed all the good things the party had delivered to the American people: the Family and Medical Leave Act, tax cuts for working families, the creation of AmeriCorps, a ban on assault weapons, the Violence Against Women Act – and more. We lost 52 House seats and eight Senate seats.
The red tide was so vast, it swept away my beloved Texas governor, Democrat Ann Richards, who was unseated by George W. Bush. I recall speaking to Richards after her defeat, as I began to strategize for Clinton’s re-election campaign. She told me to remember that “the American people don’t give a damn about your precious accomplishments.”
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Richards was right. People expect political leaders to do their jobs, and telling them you did a great job when they are struggling with inflation and high gas prices only frustrates them even more. But, if you tell them the other party is even worse – and if they get into power things will really spiral down – well, perhaps, then you’ve got a fighting chance.
Of course, a fighting chance requires Democrats to actually fight. With his old pal and partner beside him on Tuesday, Biden finally began to lace up his boxing gloves.