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How Senate Democrats can outsmart the GOP and win the Obamacare war

  • The Republicans have already shown they can be pushed around on Obamacare.
  • But Elizabeth Warren's hysterical claim that 'people will die' doesn't help.
  • Senate Democrats should calm down and get more GOP concessions instead.
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., center, Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., conduct a news conference after the Senate Policy luncheons in the Capitol, March 14, 2017.
Tom Williams | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., center, Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., conduct a news conference after the Senate Policy luncheons in the Capitol, March 14, 2017.

As soon as the flawed GOP Obamacare replacement narrowly passed the House of Representatives Thursday, Washington Democrats began a combination celebration/war dance as they prepared to defeat the measure in the U.S. Senate.

Not so fast my friends.

Yes, the current Republican bill has enough landmines to anger Senate liberals and conservatives alike. But the way some Democrats and their allies in the media are responding to the measure threatens to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Instead of continuing the same old jeering chorus of Trump-bashing, the Senate Democrats have a unique chance to use this bill to switch to a winning strategy in the health debate and beyond.

Before we look at the smarter way to go, let's just confirm the over-the-top response to the House bill that's already making the Democrats look ridiculous. Senator Elizabeth Warren is the best example. She launched a series of critical tweets against the bill filled with the usual liberal talking points but she also included an off-the-rails "people will die" statement that sullied the whole affair:

Warren's hyperbole is a predictable misstep for the Democrats and all anti-Trump forces who are missing opportunities to advance their agenda because of their uncontrolled rage at the president himself.

The fact is most of the Republicans in Congress have already surrendered to the reality of Obamacare and voted for a bill that retained about 90 percent of the ACA. The AHCA does not repeal Obamacare's cost driving insurance benefit mandates. It doesn't eliminate the "community rating" that keeps insurance premiums rising.

The bill actually boosts subsidies for Americans with pre-existing conditions in a way that would make that pre-existing fund grow exponentially in the coming years. The best anti-Obamacare activists can say is that the bill allows for a complicated limited waivers process where the states can try to opt out of some of current requirements. Big deal.

Instead of declaring victory, the Democrats are responding the same way they would had the House GOP really repealed Obamacare. And that's the loser's move. Here are three things they should do instead:

1) It's all in the branding. Start calling this GOP bill what it really is

The Democrats should start thanking the Republicans for finally accepting their version of reality and working to slightly amend Obamacare rather than killing it. Couching the GOP efforts in just that way will simultaneously delight the Democrat base and enrage conservatives just enough to undermine Republican Congressional agenda on this issue for a long time. And you wouldn't have to just take their word for it. Republicans from the reddest of states are now parroting what used to be words uttered by leftist activists on health care. Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana just told the New York Times: "There's a widespread recognition that the federal government, Congress, has created the right for every American to have health care."

Hey Democrats! With enemies like Senator Cassidy, who needs friends?

What's going to be more impressive to the swing voters and moderates in 2018 and 2020? Will it be the fact that the Democrats in Congress shouted the loudest nasty things about President Trump and the Republicans? Or will it be the fact that they easily manipulated the opposing majority party to adopt and advance their agenda?

I'm betting on the latter.

2) Go beyond pre-existing conditions. Get President Trump to clearly promise no one will lose their coverage

The Republican fears of the bad press they'd get from potentially nixing coverage for people with pre-existing conditions got them to promise not to do that before the bill was even written. And it wasn't until that special added fund to guarantee that coverage (now at $8 billion) was slapped onto the bill earlier this week that the GOP earned enough of their own frightened members' votes to pass the AHCA. Democrats made that happen without even having to say a word.

The logical next step is for the Senate liberals to insist President Trump and the Republicans promise that no one currently covered by Obamacare will lose coverage. Of course it would be an impossible promise to truly keep, but if the GOP and the White House don't think costlier patients should lose their coverage, then how can they deny less costly patients the same "rights?"

Getting that kind of promise in a tweet or a speech from either President Trump or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would be the best Republican endorsement of Obamacare they could ever hope for.

3) Admit to the public that Obamacare needed fixing

The Democrats have been in denial for years about the problems with Obamacare like sharply rising premiums and insurers bailing out. Therein lies the final trap the Senate Democrats must avoid. They can push the GOP to preserve as many part of Obamacare they want, but they should explain that they're doing this in a general effort to improve the ACA.

Some experts believe the Republicans will now get the blame for all of Obamacare's failures, but that's not a bet the Democrats should take. It would do them more good if at least some of them appeared to be working with the GOP to get a good bill passed. When Democrats like Bill Clinton took that approach on taxes and welfare reform with the Republicans in 1995, it helped reverse his slide in the polls and secure his re-election a year later. That's a path the Democrats should be emulating now... if they want to win future elections, that is.

So the Democrats have a choice. They can continue join in an angry, vitriolic, and loud protest chorus or they can bank the victory they've already won on Obamacare and more prudently move the ball down the field.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.