A huge boost to the nation’s safety net. A looming midterm with the majority on the brink. A flood of GOP attack ads. That’s where House Democrats hope the similarities end between now and 2010.
As they take their first pass at President Joe Biden’s $1.7 trillion social spending bill, House Democrats are gambling that its medley of popular family, health care and climate proposals can steer them toward a radically different political fate than eleven years ago — when a historic electoral wipeout followed the passage of their signature health care overhaul.
But before House Democrats can make good on their hopes to defy prognosticators and save their majority, they have a PR battle to win.
“The people are going to love it when they learn about it. And the politics will follow,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), who leads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a brief interview.
“A decade from now, the Biden administration will be viewed as truly an FDR-type presidency,” added Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), whose swing district narrowly backed Biden in 2020. “It’s going to take a while for all that to shake out, for people to recognize it. History, unfortunately, gets developed over the long term.”
Unlike in 2010, when former President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats fumbled the messaging on their mammoth legislative achievement, Democrats now say they’ve learned their communications lessons as they set out to convince voters to pay attention to what’s in the social spending measure.
Back then, Obamacare’s favorability hovered below 40 percent before the party was — as the former president put it famously — “shellacked” in that fall’s midterm. At public events nationwide, before and after the Affordable Care Act’s passage, Democrats’ most vulnerable members endured rabid public blowback.
In a stark departure from 2010’s frantic scramble, battleground-district Democrats are now yoking themselves to the president’s agenda, making it the centerpiece of their reelection campaigns as key pieces of the social spending bill poll above 60 percent. The House’s campaign arm has touted its own polling that shows Biden’s agenda would help narrow their party’s polling gap with Republicans.
“It’s as much of an education as it is a persuasion effort,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), who said his party needs to take a different tack if it wants to hold the House next year.
Top Democrats are moving quickly to distinguish Biden’s political war room from Obama’s, with members planning to hold 1,000 events between now and the end of the year to single out the bill’s most popular provisions, such as paid family leave, the expanded child tax credit and enabling Medicare to negotiate drug prices.
“The messaging on it will be immediate and it will be intense and it will be eloquent,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who also led the House in 2010. “It will make the difference.”
Still, some in the party question whether they’ll be able to promote a bill so big that even their own members can hardly recall everything that’s in it.
“One of the problems is there’s so much here that it’s almost overwhelming to try to figure out how to do the message,” said Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), who is retiring after 30 years in office. He quipped that messaging on creating a nationwide pre-K program alone is “a year’s work.”
“I think we’ve learned the lessons. That doesn’t mean we can always apply the lessons,” he added. “I think it would’ve been better to have a cleaner process.”
A decade ago, Democrats muscled through an $830 billion economic stimulus package before quickly pivoting to a months-long slog over Obamacare that nearly tore the party apart. The political environment only worsened for Democrats in the run up to the midterms, as Republicans seized on a narrative of fiscal irresponsibility that emboldened their base and fueled the rise of the Tea Party.
One key difference between Obamacare and Biden’s social spending package promises to help Democrats: Some pieces of the current bill will be noticeable by voters right away. Those include boosted Obamacare tax credits, expanded eligibility for Medicaid in red states and an extension of the child tax credit. Democrats in high-cost states would also see their property taxes drop, after the reversal of a Trump-era limit on deducting those costs — a huge win for districts in New Jersey and New York, some of the party’s best chances to preserve their majority next year.
Some policies, though, could take years to kick in, including more popular items such as a reduction in drug prices and expanding Medicare to cover hearing aids.
Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, who led the House Democrats’ campaign arm last cycle, said one of the party’s chief tasks is “managing expectations,” such as how long it may take to add universal pre-K.
“We are reimagining what public education is going to be. This is really a big deal,” Bustos said, but acknowledged: “It’s probably going to be at least a couple years off.”
If done right, Bustos said Democrats could possibly beat back the historical headwinds in the midterms and keep the House. But, she added: “I also don’t think there’s a lot of room for error.”
While Democrats have repeatedly sworn that they’ve learned from Obamacare-era communication failures, veterans of that period caution that the knowledge may not have entirely sunk in.
For instance, Democrats’ other enormous legislative achievement this year — a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill — has largely fallen out of view as the party raced toward its next big priority.
“You haven’t heard anybody talking about vaccinations in arms or kids back in schools or money in their wallets,” said senior Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.). “We had already moved on to the next subject matter.”
Larson had this advice for his party this time around: “Repeat it, repeat it again, and then remind, and then repeat it again … It really takes a lot of discipline, and hopefully that lesson was learned too.”
Now that the bill is through its first vote, Democrats are eager to swing back against a deluge of GOP attack ads. Republicans have already pummeled battleground Democrats with ads on inflation and supply shortages that, until now, the majority party has struggled to counterpunch.
With the social spending bill in flux for months, most Democrats held back on touting its marquee policies. But after Thursday night’s vote, Democrats say they’re confident enough that the policies will ultimately become law, so they can begin to push out their own ads.
“I think those are winning messages, but you’ve got to have the resources to get that message out. There’s been a lot of misinformation out there … We’re going to have to combat that,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), who represents a battleground district.
Red-state Democrats who lived through the contentious Obamacare vote said the political environment could hardly be more different nowadays. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said he’s bombarded with phone calls lately — but they’re about bridge projects or new programs, not conservatives angry about new health care mandates.
Back then, he said no one in the party was talking about how Obamacare could help them in the polls.
“There was no, ‘Oh, the ACA is going to help you win’ in red states,” Cleaver said, adding: “I’m not sure that I’m with the analysis that Democrats are doomed. This is a whole different ballgame.”