Democrats 'shooting holes in their own boat' with single-payer plan

Democrats 'shooting holes in their own boat' with single-payer plan
© Greg Nash

If Democrats run a presidential candidate and adopt a party position advocating a single-payer health care plan that does away with private insurance, it's likely to cost them any chance to win control of the Senate and may also imperil their House majority.

The major Democratic contenders in the half dozen Senate seats, most of which they need to capture, as well as a number of the freshmen House members who gave the party control by winning last November, fear a focus on a government-run health care plan could be lethal for them next November.

Other potentially problematic positions coming from the presidential candidates, such as decriminalizing illegal immigration, reparations for slavery, or stiff taxes on the rich can either be walked back or are more of a governing than a political problem.

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Opponents would have an easier time sticking congressional candidates with a totally government-run health care scheme, advocated by Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersJoe Biden faces an uncertain path Bernie Sanders vows to go to 'war with white nationalism and racism' as president Biden: 'There's an awful lot of really good Republicans out there' MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenPossible GOP challenger says Trump doesn't doesn't deserve reelection, but would vote for him over Democrat Joe Biden faces an uncertain path The Memo: Trump pushes back amid signs of economic slowdown MORE (D-Mass.) and, on some days, by Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisJoe Biden faces an uncertain path Biden: 'There's an awful lot of really good Republicans out there' Fighter pilot vs. astronaut match-up in Arizona could determine control of Senate MORE (D-Calif.). This issue affects many millions personally.

This risks the big advantage Democrats enjoy on health care, warns Paul Begala, a prominent party strategist. “Abolishing private health insurance would squander that advantage and allow Trump to accuse Democrats of restricting coverage and limiting options. Far better to expand coverage and increase options with a Medicare buy-in as a public option,” Begala told me.

Those single-payer advocates, he added, “are shooting holes in their own boat, and it could sink the Democrats and re-elect Trump in 2020.”

It's a dream for Trump and Republicans who have been floundering on the issue. Back before the Affordable Care Act became popular, Republicans scored points on Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaDick Cheney to attend fundraiser supporting Trump reelection: report Forget conventional wisdom — Bernie Sanders is electable 2020 Democrats fight to claim Obama's mantle on health care MORE's exaggerated claim that “if you like your health insurance you can keep it.” That pales, strategists of both parties agree, next to charges Trump and company are certain to make: “If you like your health insurance the Democrats will force you to give it up.”

Of the 43 newly elected House Democrats who took Republican seats, the vast majority ran on protecting and expanding Obamacare. Only a handful of candidates in competitive contests advocated a single-payer plan, and several of those lost.

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Most of the freshman in swing districts, like Kim SchrierKimberly (Kim) Merle SchrierHouse Democrats inch toward majority support for impeachment Wave of Washington state lawmakers call for impeachment proceedings against Trump No. 3 Senate Democrat calls for House to begin impeachment proceedings against Trump MORE (D-Wash.), are progressive and realistic on health care. “The Affordable Health Care Act was a phenomenal first step, and now we need to expand it, bring down costs and offer a public option,” the Washington state lawmaker who's a pediatrician told me. “A lot of my constituents like their health insurance plan; union members who negotiated really good health care benefits are not willing to give them up.”

She and Illinois freshman Karen Underwood, a nurse and former Obama health care official, are among those devising ways to improve the Affordable Care Act.

Democrats scored big gains last year in the suburbs of Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York and northern Virginia. Not one of those new lawmakers supports a single payer measure.

It's simply not realistic, according to Virginia Rep. Abigail SpanbergerAbigail Davis SpanbergerAssault weapons ban picks up steam in Congress Pelosi backers feel vindicated after tumultuous stretch Overnight Defense: House votes to block Trump arms sales to Saudis, setting up likely veto | US officially kicks Turkey out of F-35 program | Pentagon sending 2,100 more troops to border MORE, who beat a Republican incumbent by less than two points. She backs a measure that would allow Americans to buy into a public plan. There's a similar refrain from other freshmen from Michigan to Texas to Colorado.

To take the Senate, Democrats need to win in places like North Carolina, Alabama, Arizona, Iowa and Maine — generally not friendly venues for terminating private insurance plans. In Arizona, Mark Kelly, a former astronaut and the Democrats' top 2020 Senate challenger, backs a public option but pointedly says, “I am not in favor for the 156 million of us that get our health care through our employer to make that go away.”

Another top challenger, North Carolina's Cal Cunningham, a former state legislator and a veteran, likewise says the need is to “strengthen the Affordable Care Act” and “not for taking away employer-sponsored health care.”

Remarkable is the blindness of some liberals and their inability to appreciate how politically disruptive are major changes in health care; that's why the Affordable Care Act was unpopular until the Republicans tried to kill it without an alternative. What Sanders and Warren and company now want to do is kill ObamaCare rather than build on its popularity with cost controls and a public option which, like Medicare today, would allow consumers to choose between a government or private plan.

Leading progressive health care experts like Ezekiel Emanuel of the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton's Paul Starr warn that adopting a single-payer system would be a nightmare. Opposition would come from: the health insurance business, with about 500,000 employees; most hospitals; many doctors and others in the health care industry; lots of seniors, fearful it would disrupt the current system; and, whatever the public posture, many labor unions.

Single-payer polls well, notes the Kaiser Family Foundation health research organization, until voters learn the specifics. Support “shifts significantly” when learning about accompanying tax increases, potential delays in treatments, and that they can't keep their current health insurance.

That's the 2020 message Trump hopes to deliver.

Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for the Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.