Strategists on how to handle healthcare in the election

By Mary Mosquera
08:56 AM

No bumper sticker slogan is going to cut it this time.

They might both wish they could, but neither President Obama nor GOP presumptive nominee Mitt Romney are going to survive the general election without answering targeted questions about their healthcare visions.

The upcoming election promises to be a nail-biter because the nation is so polarized, so the former Massachusetts Governor and Obama must target their particular visions primarily at the votes in play – those who are independent, indifferent or undecided.

To achieve that, each politician needs to start sharpening a clear message about why his view of healthcare reform will benefit voters most and, at the same time, disarm the other’s strategy, according to several political strategists and analysts interviewed for this story.

And both candidates need to do so within the confines of a populace thus far given little explanation of the differences between Obamacare and Romneycare, save the fact that the former is nationwide while the latter is being exercised in a single state.

How either could parlay ACA ruling
Whether Obama gained credibility to put the pieces of his law in place as a result of the Supreme Court decision, or the backlash fiercely energized Romney supporters and contributors remains to be seen.

However much fire the Supreme Court decision fuels, a win is still a win, and it’s a positive for the president, said Henry Aaron, a senior fellow of economic studies at the Brookings Institution (pictured at left).

[Related: Is the fate of bipartisanship around health IT tied to the elections?]

What with the economy and jobs the most oft-cited top issues on voters’ minds, such a victory in the healthcare realm is no guarantee of re-election. Obamacare as a whole polls poorly, though the individual aspects that have been activated are popular, even among some Republicans.

Obama’s biggest hurdle, perhaps, will be to overcome the fact that few Americans understand very much of the Affordable Care Act.

“You’re not going to explain the ins and outs of how health exchanges work to people in the next five months,” said Democratic strategist Peter Fenn, founder and president of Fenn Communications Group (pictured at right). “But you can explain to them what a plus it is to have their children on their insurance until age 26; to not be denied health insurance because of a pre-existing condition; to not have lifetime limits; to be able to count on being covered for health insurance; and the notion that you are expanding the pool to make it more cost-effective.”

The attention span of voters is short, so Fenn suggests that Obama focus on a short list, maybe three of those benefits.

In all campaigns, it is typically tough for an incumbent because the challenger just has to criticize and doesn’t have to suggest solutions. But this election might be different, at least when it comes to healthcare.

Romney’s and Obama’s health reform laws have similarities but diverge dramatically in that Romney’s is state-based, said John Graham, an economist and policy analyst at the Pacific Research Institute.

Romney hasn’t proposed major healthcare reform alternatives, Fenn said, and it’s “like nailing Jell-O to the wall figuring out where Romney stands.”

What Romney has said repeatedly is that health reform should be up to the states – an appealing angle for many on the political right. “Governor Romney has never stated that he would force every state to adopt Romneycare if he were president,” Graham said.

Considering that 26 states were part of the lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act, there was as little reason for Romney to deviate from the “state’s choice” tactic before the Supreme Court ruling as there was for Obama to launch a media blitzkrieg spotlighting the law’s accomplishments.

[Political Malpractice: Are politics extinguishing state insurance exchanges?]

“I think that Republican politicians — including Gov. Romney, Congress, and state governors and legislators — will have to give more definition to the reform with which they will replace Obamacare,” Graham added.

Time is nigh for honing messages
The Romney campaign has had to deflect his past health reform record in Massachusetts and its relationship with the current law, most often demonstrated by being less specific while proposing that many of these decisions should not be the domain of the federal government.

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