Every four years, political analysts and commentators compare current presidential candidates to events from campaigns past. She may not want to admit it, but Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s actions on health care the past several weeks, culminating in the release of her second health plan on Friday, echo the 2004 presidential campaign of her Massachusetts colleague, former Sen. John Kerry.
During his campaign for the Democratic nomination, Kerry played up his military service at every opportunity. Howard Dean’s strident opposition to the Iraq War, coupled with his infamous on-camera implosion after the Iowa caucuses, gave Kerry an opening that he parlayed into the Democratic nomination. At the party’s convention in Boston, Kerry famously started his acceptance speech with a military salute: “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty.”
The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads that ran after the Democratic convention attempted to turn Kerry’s biggest strength—his military service—into a weakness. The ads sparked controversy, and no small amount of political attention, by raising questions about Kerry’s service in Vietnam, and his activities protesting the Vietnam War following his return.
Likewise, the past several weeks have seen Warren turn her biggest strength—her wonky, “I’ve got a plan for that” persona—into a weakness. On November 1, she released her first health-care plan, replete with multiple documents highlighting supposed savings under a single-payer health-care system, and her plan for raising revenue to pay for such a system without raising taxes on the middle class.
Warren’s first plan drew mockery from her fellow Democratic candidates and conservative commentators alike for its unrealistic gimmicks and assumptions. Most notably, Warren’s plan failed to concede what one of her own advisors implicitly admitted: That an $8.8 trillion “employer contribution” would ultimately come out of the pockets of the middle class. Meanwhile, her opponents continued to hammer Warren for wanting to strip away the existing insurance of millions of Americans, including union workers who negotiated their health coverage at the bargaining table.
Her initial plan failed so badly that exactly two weeks later, Warren felt the need to reboot. She released another health plan, this one highlighting a supposed “transition period,” to get ahead of criticism from her fellow Democrats in the upcoming presidential debate.
This plan pledged that, within her first 100 days in office, Warren would work to enact “a true Medicare for All option”—one that people could select if they chose, but would not require individuals to give up their existing coverage. Only later, “no later than my third year in office,” would Warren “fight to pass legislation that would complete the transition” to a full single-payer system.
The second plan seems like a deliberate dodge, an attempt for Warren to have her cake and eat it too. The single-payer bill introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)—which Warren has co-sponsored—contains a four-year transition plan in Title X of the underlying legislation. The single-payer bill introduced in the House by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) also includes a transition, which would take place over a two-year period. Warren’s claim that Congress should pass not one but two major bills to enact her health-care agenda sounds like an excuse for her to walk away from her commitment to single payer.
On that count, who can blame her? Evidence from the midterm elections shows that support for full-on socialized medicine cost the average Democrat in a competitive district nearly 5 percentage points of support. No wonder that even Barack Obama conceded on Friday that “the average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system” and cautioned Democrats against proposing “crazy stuff,” in a not-so-subtle warning about proposals by Warren and Sanders.
But Warren now remains firmly mired in a mess of her own making. Her “I’ve got a plan for that” mantra meant she had to release a detailed health care proposal at a time political expediency might have suggested vagueness. Her Democratic rivals, to say nothing of President Trump’s re-election, can now pick apart those details over many months.
And to think those details won’t matter to the American people, or lead to additional controversy, belies past experience. When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi admitted in 2010 that “We have to pass [Obamacare] so that you can find out what’s in it,” she conceded that the legislative details matter to millions of Americans—and that such public scrutiny put Democrats in political peril.
Hours before she released her first health-care platform, an article on the issue correctly claimed that “Warren did not have a plan for this.” Her initial lack of a plan, followed by her willingness to spell out in minute relief the details of her socialized medicine plan, could prove her undoing.