In January, ABC News journalist Jonathan Karl asked a question of White House Press Secretary Jay Carney that many Democrats (myself included) had been asking for years: “You already lost the House because of Obamacare,” he said. “Will it have been worth it if you lose the Senate?”
At the time, the question was merely a hypothetical worst-case scenario. But on Nov. 6, that nightmare became a reality. Despite most polls predicting a nail-biter on Election Day, a Republican wave swept across the country, eviscerated the Democratic majority in the Senate and flipped four governorships from blue to red.
Now, on the other side of the Republican wave, we progressives are forced to ask ourselves again: Was the President’s signature health care law worth two brutal election years for our party?
The short answer, I think, is a resounding yes. But it’s worth picking apart the history of the law to remember why.
The 2008 election was an indisputable success for Democrats. They took over the White House, made gains in the House of Representatives and moved toward a supermajority in the Senate. Those victories gave the Democratic Party an exceptionally rare and ultimately brief period of near-absolute power to pass remarkably bold policy.
But even then, they had to decide how bold was too bold. Specifically, should they use their new power to ram through an overhaul of the American health care system while they still had a chance? Or should they play it safe, pass less flashy policies and slowly build upon their electoral success?
Convinced that history would thank them later, President Obama and Congressional Democrats took a risk and moved forward with what became the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 — the most groundbreaking restructuring of our health care system since Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. Not a single Republican joined them.
And over the next four years, Democrats repeatedly paid the price.
Frustration with the swiftness and boldness of the Affordable Care Act first boiled over in 2010 when Republicans rose up to take back the House of Representatives and cut into Democrats’ majority in the Senate. It was, according to President Obama, “a shellacking.”
Then, in 2013, the political juggernaut that is the ACA reared its head once again when a rocky rollout quickly turned the tide against the Democrats ahead of the 2014 midterms.
Approval of the ACA dropped to 40 percent and dragged Obama down with it; neither ever recovered. The timing for Republicans couldn’t have been better. Just as Congressional Democrats began to distance themselves from the law to survive re-election, Republicans dug in and used the ACA as a powerful political weapon to take over the Senate.
Proof of the ACA’s toxicity became evident as soon as the first political ads began to air. I made a point to check: Every single Republican who won a competitive Senate race last week used the Affordable Care Act against their opponent, regardless of whether the Democrat had even voted for the original bill.
In North Carolina, for example, Thom Tillis insisted “Obamacare” was “on the ballot this fall.” In Georgia, David Perdue slammed Michelle Nunn in debates for supporting an “unfixable” health care law. And in Iowa, even far-right Joni Ernst managed to win by vowing to “repeal Obamacare” and fight for “health care we can afford.”
And it worked. Politico ran a story the day after the election with the headline, “Yup, It Was a Wave.” The ACA had officially given the Democratic Party its second shellacking.
Yet, despite all the pain, reforming America’s health care system was still the right call.
By expanding Medicaid, the ACA addresses inequality concerns head-on. Women will no longer be charged more for health insurance than men and will even benefit from increased access to contraception. Those with pre-existing conditions will no longer be denied the coverage they need to survive. We students are now able to stay on our parents’ insurance until we are 26, giving us an expanded incubation period to invest more in our education and create opportunities for ourselves.
And none of that would have been possible if Democrats had not used the golden moment between 2008 and 2010 to ram through a health care overhaul. Such opportunities are extremely rare, and Democrats won’t have such an opportunity again for another decade because of gerrymandering in state legislatures.
So, yeah, both the 2010 and 2014 elections were tough to swallow. The shellackings we suffered were painful and will leave deep scars in the Democratic bench for years to come. But history will praise progressives for having the courage to pass the Affordable Care Act while they still had a chance.
Tyler Blackmon is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. His columns run on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.