TIME

Democrats Run Away From Obamacare

Obama's State of Union address
President Barack Obama, gives the State of the Union address in Washington on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013. Charles Dharapak / AP

New television ads paid for by a Democratic Super PAC defend incumbents for blasting Obama's health care reform before elections

The ad casts the candidate as a crusader to fix a flawed law, invokes the broken promise about keeping health insurance you like, and boasts that he “took the White House to task for the disastrous” website. It swipes at Barack Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment in a manner you might expect from the president’s opponents.

The difference is that the commercial was cut by a Democratic group on behalf of an incumbent Democrat. The new ad, released Wednesday by House Majority PAC to defend Rep. Joe Garcia of Florida, highlights the approach Democratic strategists are adopting as they try to inoculate vulnerable incumbents from the early struggles of the health care reform law:

In an effort to rebut Republican attempts to tether Garcia to the law, the spot notes that he is “working to fix” it—which clearly suggests it’s broken. It notes Garcia’s vote to let people keep their plan—a reference to Obama’s infamous pledge, which turned out to be one he couldn’t keep. And it sets up the South Florida Democrat as a White House antagonist. The strategy of creating separation from the president’s health care law is part of a pattern for House Majority PAC, a super PAC supporting Democratic candidates in House races. Last month, the group cut an ad lauding Arizona Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick for blowing the whistle “on the disastrous health care website” that demonstrated “stunning ineptitude.”

House Majority PAC says the ads are designed to combat smear campaigns orchestrated by conservatives against vulnerable Democrats running in competitive districts. Both races are listed as toss-ups by the Cook Political Report.

“The Koch brothers are spending unprecedented sums in an effort to mislead voters and distort Democrats’ records and House Majority PAC simply won’t let those charges go unanswered,” says Andy Stone, the group’s communications director. The commercials note that Garcia and Kilpatrick fought to “hold insurance companies accountable” and prevent them from denying patients coverage because of pre-existing conditions. These are popular provisions—and they are law because of Obamacare, which the ads decline to note explicitly.

The purpose of the campaign is twofold, says a Democratic strategist who works on House races. One is to highlight positive aspects of the health care law. But the more obvious and important functions is to acknowledge broad frustration with its rocky rollout.

“People are understandably upset and frustrated by the rollout of the Obamacare website, and you have to talk to people where they are,” says the Democratic strategist. “It’s important for Democrats to establish that baseline level of credibility.” A failure to do so could make a candidate look oblivious to the public mood. It is, if course, difficult to make nuanced points in a 30-second commercial, and the strategist said future ads would do more to highlight the law’s benefits.

Republicans believe that bumpy debut of the Affordable Care Act is a gift that will propel them to sweeping victories in November. That conviction, Republican aides and strategists say, is part of the reason the GOP is wary of becoming embroiled in a divisive and distracting fight over immigration reform with the midterms looming. It also played a role in the House leadership’s decision to capitulate Tuesday by voting to raise the federal borrowing limit without any strings attached, averting a skirmish capable of diverting voters’ attention from health care.

Andrea Bozek, a spokeswoman for House Republicans’ campaign arm, framed the ads conceding the law’s shortcomings as an admission that the issue is a winner for the GOP. “If Democrats are being forced to spend resources in February attacking Obamacare,” she said, “then this is a very grim foreshadowing of what November will bring.”

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