The Kiss of Death: How Elizabeth Warren and Medicare for All Are Taking Each Other Down


Elizabeth Warren has had a bad couple of weeks. People are demanding to see her corporate client list and tax returns, her health care plan has been panned as a disaster, and her campaign is sparring with national neophyte Pete Buttigieg about campaign finance purity. As if to warn that the slide isn’t over, a poll by Reuters/Ipsos released this morning shows Warren hovering around single digits in the Democratic primary.

Medicare for All, as a buzzphrase, remains popular among Democrats. Its fervor, however has cooled considerably among Democrats, and its popularity has now reversed among all Americans. A Quinnipiac poll finds that in the last two years, Americans went from supporting the idea of Medicare for All by a 51-38 margin to opposing it by 52-36. For those looking for the math, that is a stunning, net 30-point reversal.

Even among the Democratic electorate, the favorability of a public option or Medicare buy-in to compete with private insurance is a good 15-points higher than mandatory Medicare. The public option enjoys nearly 60% support among all Americans and is more popular than it was earlier in the year.

There was a point in time when Democratic candidates for president had to seriously consider their prospect should they choose to stick their necks out for a preservation of the private market. That has reversed.

Why?

One reason is that as Medicare for All became mainstream as an idea, scrutiny began to increase. Mainstream progressive think tanks pointed out that Medicare for All would not, in fact, stem the tide of medical costs, necessitating $34 trillion in tax increases to implement it over 10 years. That’s an eye-catching sum, both in terms of taxes and in terms of the magnitude of the task to overhaul the entire system.

Scrutiny also revealed that generally speaking, Medicare for All proposals sought to undo private health insurance altogether. As recently as June, over half of Americans believed that Medicare for All would allow those who like their private plans to keep them. As that lie fell, so did support for single-payer.

As much as proponents of single-payer like to argue that the only choice matters in the health care system is the choice of providers and not the choice of insurance plans, we at TPV revealed that people do, in fact, like having the choice of insurance plans. Even within today’s Medicare, private Medicare plans (Medicare Advantage plans) consistently score better on beneficiary satisfaction than either traditional Medicare or non-Medicare private plans.

In fact, there was no conception of Medicare for All as anything but single-payer until Kamala Harris released a proposal incorporating private insurance into her Medicare for All plan.

But the ultimate fall from favor of Medicare for All can be tied to the fortunes of a different candidate for president: Elizabeth Warren. Ever the steadfast defender of Medicare for All, Warren fumbled first when she released a financing plan for her proposal that was widely panned as dishonest and insufficient.

An additional criticism of the candidate known for having a plan for everything was that she had not outlined a plan to transition from the current system to Medicare for All. Warren bucked under pressure again, but this time, she released a plan that was actually an abandonment of Medicare for All couched in transition language. Warren conceded that a public option would be needed at least during the transition period, but also that the vast majority - perhaps all - of the coverage gap would be filled in the transition before Medicare for All ever kicks in. As we noted here at TPV then, if her transition plan were to be a success, Medicare for All would be unnecessary. If it failed, she would not be trusted to try Medicare for All.

Warren’s plan was roundly panned as cut-bait, especially from the ideological Left - a base she had hoped to share with Bernie Sanders.

In pretty fantastic fashion, Warren’s strength in the Democratic primary quickly began to erode after the release of her Medicare for All retreat. Bernie Sanders, left in the field as the far Left’s only “true” Medicare-for-All darling, has reclaimed the second spot in national polls, though his own standing has not measurably improved and both he and Warren remain well behind frontrunner Joe Biden.

While a lot of the damage to Medicare for All has been done by the questions raised about it, some has also been done in the way proponents have answered those questions. Warren, to her credit I suppose, has been the only one attempting to answer them, badly though she has. If even the candidate with a plan for everything cannot figure out how to do this, it probably isn’t something that can be done - that might be the thought of many.

Perhaps Warren should have thought better before she decided to link her presidential futures to the browbeating of democratic socialists.