The widely respected Florida political analyst Adam Smith sees big problems for Democrats in the loss of Alex Sink to Republican David Jolly in the special election to fill the House seat from Florida's 13th Congressional District. "Democrats had a better-funded, well-known nominee who ran a strong campaign against a little-known, second- or third-tier Republican who ran an often wobbly race in a district Barack Obama won twice," Smith wrote Tuesday night. "Outside Republican groups — much more so than the under-funded Jolly campaign — hung the Affordable Care Act and President Obama on Sink. It worked."
Smith noted that both Democrat Sink and Republican Jolly insisted the race to replace the late GOP Rep. Bill Young was mainly about local issues. And indeed, watching the first debate between Sink and Jolly, on Feb. 3, one came away with the sense that issues like flood insurance played a role in the race that some outsiders didn't appreciate.
But one thing was clear from that debate, and it was that Sink didn't have much to say about Obamacare. She defended the law and adopted the widely-used Democratic line that the president's health care law should be "fixed." But, like many other Democrats around the country, she had few actual ideas about how to fix it.
When Jolly asked Sink what she would do to fix Obamacare, Sink had two proposals. She would allow the government to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices for Medicare, and she would repeal the medical device tax -- neither of which would address the problems Obamacare has created for millions of Americans. Sink said there were many other fix-it ideas she could have discussed, but she did not say what there were. And her website's issues page included a section headlined, "Improving the Affordable Care Act: Keep the Good, Fix the Bad," but did not suggest any ways to do so.
"The rollout of the website and problems that have arisen with the implementation are unacceptable," Sink's website said. "The Obama administration needs to be held accountable to get the website running, and making any necessary changes to fix any problems with the law. If these changes cannot be made in a timely way, then components of the law should be delayed until these issues are addressed."
It's not clear whether Sink's weak defense of Obamacare was the key factor, or even a significant factor, in her loss. Political reporters sometimes make too much of national issues in special elections. But there's no doubt that Sink's campaign showed the difficulties of the Democrats' defense of Obamacare. They have to say they want to fix the program because almost nobody (a bare eight percent in the latest Kaiser Foundation survey) wants to keep the law as is. But to fix the aspects of Obamacare that are imposing new burdens on millions of Americans -- higher premiums, higher deductibles, a hugely unpopular mandate, and narrower choices of doctors, hospitals, and prescription drugs -- Democrats would have to advocate fundamental changes in the law that they have so far steadfastly refused to accept. Get rid of the individual mandate? To do so would rip the heart out of Obamacare, tantamount to repealing it altogether. Many Democrats would rather lose than do that.
So the Florida contest may or may not be a bellwether. But it did lay bare the Democrats' "fix Obamacare" dilemma. By the time midterm campaigning is at full speed in September and October, Democratic candidates will probably not be able to get away with listing a couple of non-germane tweaks as their program to "fix" Obamacare. If they try, they could pay a high political price. But if they suggest fundamental changes to the law, they'll run afoul of party orthodoxy and risk losing national Democratic support. It will be just another added cost of the Affordable Care Act.
This story was first published at 12:51 a.m.