As you may recall, attacks on Obamacare were a big feature of Republican attack ads in 2010, the midterm election that may provide a mirror image of what we will see in November. Vulnerable Democrats back then didn’t much want to talk about it. But some, particularly from energy-producing states, actively opposed one uncompleted Democratic initiative: a cap-and-trade emissions bill that passed the House before being stalled in the Senate. Then-governor Joe Manchin, who was running for the Senate from West Virginia in a special election that year, made a memorable ad in which he promised to defend Second Amendment rights, repeal “the bad parts of Obamacare,” and obliterate cap-and-trade with his shooting iron:
Eight years later, Manchin is running for a second full term in the Senate, and he’s reprised the theme of that 2010 ad with a decisive twist:
This time instead of talking about repealing the “bad parts” of Obamacare, he’s defending a good part of Obamacare: the very popular ban on insurance company refusals to cover preexisting conditions, which would be eliminated if a lawsuit brought by 20 state attorneys general succeeds. The suit claims that when Congress eliminated the individual health insurance purchasing mandate last year, it knocked the props from beneath the whole system of subsidies from healthier to sicker Americans. And while the mandate itself was never terribly popular, the opposite is true of preexisting condition coverage. From Manchin’s point of view, the key issue is that his Republican opponent, West Virginia Attorney General Pat Morrisey, is one of the parties to the lawsuit. So he’s now a legitimate target. And as the Washington Post’s Paul Waldman observes, it’s quite the act of political jiu jitsu:
[T]his ad also reveals the complexity of the politics around defending the health law. In many places dominated by Republicans, saying you support “Obamacare” is like calling yourself a Satanist. Trump won West Virginia by a 42-point margin, while promising to take West Virginians’ health care away …
Manchin’s political survival depends on winning significant numbers of Republicans, as well as old-style ancestral Democrats-in-registration-only who backed Trump. But now it turns out that the way to do that is to attack what the Republican Party is doing on health care, even if he does it without mentioning Obamacare by name.
It’s a good example of the revolutionary effect of focusing on actual health-care policies rather than labels and abstractions. As Waldman points out, West Virginians have a lot to lose from Obamacare repeal:
[I]n few places has Obamacare transformed people’s lives for the better more dramatically than in West Virginia. The number of uninsured was cut by more than half after the ACA took effect. The number of West Virginians getting coverage through Medicaid increased by more than 50 percent because of the law; only New Mexico has a larger proportion of its citizens on Medicaid.
Morrisey and other Republican attorneys general were foolish to let their Ahab-type obsession with bringing down the great white whale of Obamacare take them into such an easily attacked position. But for now, Manchin’s got his opponent in the crosshairs.