Ten Democratic candidates took the stage in Atlanta for the latest presidential debate on Wednesday evening, and as with the past several debates, health care played an important role. The attack lines echoed debates past: Progressives like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) pledged support for full-fledged socialized medicine, while so-called “moderates” like former Vice President Joe Biden expressed opposition to taking away Americans’ existing health plans, and raising taxes by tens of trillions of dollars to do so.
Several contradictions emerged. First, as in debates past, the controversy seemed focused more on tactics than on strategy—how quickly to take away Americans’ health insurance, rather than whether the United States should ultimately end up with a system of socialized medicine.
This time, however, the specific promises of Warren and Biden demonstrated the unrealistic nature of their rhetoric. They epitomize how both sides of the debate—“moderates” and progressives—are speaking out of both sides of their mouth.
Warren’s Unrealistic Promises
Early in the debate, Warren tried to square the circle into which she has put herself, by first releasing a plan for full-on single payer, and then releasing a second “transition” plan last Friday. In the latter plan, Warren pledged she would pass not one but two separate major pieces of health care legislation through Congress—the first within her 100 days, the second within three years.
Warren claimed that she would provide access to “free” health care for 135 million Americans within her first 100 days in office. That number comes from the populations that she pledged in last week’s plan would have immediate access to a Medicare-type single-payer system without premiums or cost sharing: Those with incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level (currently $51,500 for a family of four), and all children under age 18.
The idea that Warren can introduce, let alone pass, such massive legislation within 100 days—by April 30, 2021—seems unrealistic at best. By way of comparison, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee—the first committee to mark up the legislation that became Obamacare—did not even introduce its version of the bill until June 9, 2009, well after Barack Obama’s first 100 days in office. Barack Obama did not sign Obamacare into law until March 23, 2010, 427 days after his inauguration.
Drafting and passing a bill providing “free” health care to only 135 million people (as opposed to more than 300 million in full-on single payer) would in and of itself represent one of the largest and costliest pieces of legislation—if not the largest and costliest piece of legislation—ever considered by Congress. It would also require massive tax increases, which given the gimmicks in Warren’s plan would likely fall on the middle class.
The idea that Congress could pass such large legislation in only 100 days seems unrealistic at best, and an affront to democracy at worst. Underpinning this timetable lies the idea that “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it,” because Democrats fear the ramifications of allowing the American people to understand the effects of their agenda before enacting it. In reality, however, trying to pass legislation that fast would quickly become a legislative morass for Warren, much like the political morass (of her own making) that she currently faces on health care.
Does Biden Believe in Choice?
Biden also spoke out of both sides of his mouth on health care. He claimed that 160 million Americans with employer-sponsored coverage like their current insurance, and that he trusts the American people to decide whether or not to join a government-run plan.
However, Biden also claimed that his plan would bring down costs and premiums for the American people. Those reductions can only materialize if people end up enrolling in the government-run health plan, because it would use raw government power to pay doctors and hospitals less.
On the one hand, Biden claims he believes in choice. But on the other hand, his rhetoric belies his desire for a given outcome, one in which people “choose” the government-run plan. As with Pete Buttigieg’s claim that a government-run plan would provide a “glide path” to single payer, both Biden’s rhetoric and the details of his plan show that he wants to sabotage private insurance to drive people into the government-run plan.
Forcing everyone into socialized medicine, and dissembling to voters while doing so: That’s the agenda the American people saw on display in Atlanta Wednesday evening.