Rubin: Democratic hopefuls should heed Obama’s advice

Medicare for All and similar policies aren’t flying with moderates. Does that explain Warren’s retreat?

By Jennifer Rubin / The Washington Post

The New York Times reports former president Barack Obama’s remarks at a gathering of liberal donors:

“While Mr. Obama did not single out any specific primary candidate or policy proposal, he cautioned that the universe of voters that could support a Democratic candidate — Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans — are not driven by the same views reflected on ‘certain left-leaning Twitter feeds’ or ‘the activist wing of our party.’

“‘Even as we push the envelope and we are bold in our vision we also have to be rooted in reality,’ Mr. Obama said. ‘The average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.’”

Obama did not need to specify a candidate. The Democratic primary has been convulsed as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, rolled out a gargantuan Medicare for All plan funded by massive new taxes, premised on the destruction of the private health insurance industry and major changes in the way providers are paid, and that rolls in comprehensive immigration reform. While Obama’s warning might apply equally to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and to ideas such as decriminalizing illegal border crossings, his admonition certainly has most immediate application to Warren, who has risen to the top of the polls in part by emphasizing bold transformation in almost every area of policy.

Obama’s warning is buttressed by recent swing-state polling showing winnable voters are wary of abolishing private health care or legalizing undocumented immigrants’ trips across the border. The Blue Wall Voices Project found that in four key Midwest states, “Majorities of (swing) voters view a ban on fracking (54 percent), a national Medicare for All plan (62 percent), and stopping border detainments of people coming into the country illegally (71 percent) as bad ideas.” In the same study, self-described Democrats show higher levels of support for these policies.

Even within the Democratic Party, howls of protest greeted Warren’s initial Medicare for All. In response, Warren rolled out a “transition” plan to reach universal coverage in stages that seems to mimic the proposals advanced by her rivals, even though just weeks ago she was condemning anyone who didn’t sign up for a radical transformation of the health insurance industry.

In her current iteration, Warren’s Medicare for All proposal runs the risk of both disappointing progressive and failing to mollify moderates. As Annie Linsky reported in The Washington Post:

“Under Warren’s new plan, which she calls a ‘Medicare for All option,’ all Americans would be eligible to participate in Medicare, but no one would have to. She would push for this initiative in her first 100 days in the White House, then make a separate effort to pass Medicare for All later in her first term. …

“Experts and rivals portrayed the move as a retreat from one of Warren’s highest-profile policy positions on a matter that’s of top importance to many voters. Her position arguably now resembles the ‘public option’ favored by many of her centrist competitors: a proposal that would allow Americans to choose a government-run program if they wanted, rather than the mandatory approach favored by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont.”

Sure enough, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former vice president Joe Biden both slammed her effort to have it all ways in widely circulated statements. Buttigieg’s camp wrote that “Despite adopting Pete’s language of ‘choice,’ her plan is still a ‘my way or the highway’ approach that would eradicate choice for millions of Americans. No amount of Washington political games can save her plan from that fatal flaw: She still doesn’t trust the American people to make the right health care decisions for themselves.”

Biden’s camp chimed in: “What started out as ‘mathematical gymnastics’ have been replaced by a full program of flips and twists covering every element of her plan. Reporting today indicates that this is because even her own aides didn’t realize the importance of health care in this campaign until recent weeks, and have scrambled to land on a politically advantageous position.” Biden’s campaign accuses her of a bait and switch: “This latest plan will also delay the introduction of her full Medicare for All proposals as far as three years into her term, after the midterms; a move that doesn’t exactly address the urgency of now.”

So was Warren right to retreat, in essence following Obama’s admonition even before he issued it? Perhaps, but the resulting image is of an erratic politician whose heart is with the far left but who sees her campaign in peril. If authenticity and wonky precision were her brand, her latest move will leave many Democrats feeling that she is less trustworthy than either Sanders, who is sticking to actual Medicare for All, or the moderates who have warned consistently not to throw people off private insurance.

Obama’s lesson is the correct one: Do not go so far left as to give Trump leverage in the general election. However, voters and candidates should also heed the first rule of politics: Voters can spot a phony a mile away. Obama’s advice would lead Democrats desperate to win to one of the many candidates who have never embraced Medicare for All. The 2020 election may depend on whether they take it.

Follow Jennifer Rubin on Twitter @JRubinBlogger.

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