Opinion | Healthcare

Biden's health care gaffe shows he's not ready for prime time

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Joe Biden performs one political belly flop after another. This week the former vice president rolled out his health care plan, which mainly featured a hearty embrace of ObamaCare along with, in a nod to the times we live in, a sizable dollop of government meddling. 

The homage to the signature achievement of his White House years - which he once called "a big f--king deal" - was meant to distinguish him from his many rivals calling for an end to the Affordable Care Act [ACA] and also to private insurance, a proposition that is not popular with most Americans. His defense of ObamaCare was also meant to tie him ever tighter to "my buddy Barack," as Biden has called him.

Unhappily for Biden, that tie became a noose when, in promoting his plan, he echoed the signature lie told by President Obama, claiming that, "If you like your health care plan, your employer-based plan, you can keep it." That falsehood, repeated over and over by Biden's boss as he attempted to sell the public on his health care program, became emblematic of the dishonest promises made by the prior administration, and ultimately undermined faith in the ACA, and in President Obama.

Obama knew his plan contained no such assurance; he knew the claim was untrue. Even the liberal site Politifact labeled it "the lie of the year."

It is unimaginable that Biden or his team did not recognize the danger of invoking that promise. 

It is especially unimaginable since his health care proposal is one of the few detailed policy blueprints that Biden has bothered to release. As his campaign has strolled forward, he has released only the sketchiest of climate and student loan plans, and virtually nothing on housing, trade, entitlements, and numerous other issues. His healthcare plan, consequently, looms large for the Biden campaign.

Not only is health care critical to Biden; it also figures to play a central role in the 2020 election. Democrats won big on the issue in 2018, reminding voters of repeated Republican efforts to abolish ObamaCare and their embarrassing failure to provide an alternative. It remains a potent weapon against the GOP, especially as it remains the number one issue on the minds of voters.

It is also divisive among Democrats. Ironically, the issue that brought them together successfully in 2018 is the issue likely to tear them apart in 2020. 

Against that backdrop, Biden's miscue is even more consequential. Only recently has the former veep mixed it up with his fellow Democrats; for months he virtually ignored the other 23 or so men and women vying for the nomination. On health care he has carved out his own space, pointedly criticizing "Medicare for All," which is being advocated by progressives such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).

On the campaign trail recently, Biden talked up ObamaCare and criticized those who would tear it down in favor of Medicare for All, saying "I don't know why we'd get rid of what in fact is working and move to something totally new." Biden touted his cheaper and more expedient approach, saying his plan "doesn't cost $3 trillion, and it can be done quickly."

Biden's plan, his team says, would cost $750 billion over ten years.

He followed up by noting that Sanders had admitted that implementing Medicare for All would mean higher taxes on the middle class and the end to private insurance-both features that will be especially unpopular with the blue-collar voters that Democrats lost in 2016 and that they will need to win back in 2020. 

In swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, unions have fought hard to win generous health care packages in recent years from companies unwilling or unable to increase wages. Those union members are not keen to see those benefits traded in for an uncertain government-run program. 

And, they sure don't want higher taxes.

Biden, to be sure, bowed to the current leftward tilt of his party by proposing to add a public option available to everyone and by vowing to rein in Big Pharma pricing, in part by repealing the law that prohibits Medicare from negotiating lower prices with drug companies. But the core of his plan is incremental fixes to ObamaCare, including reintroducing the unpopular individual mandate.

On health care, and on other topics as well, Biden presents himself as the seasoned and pragmatic moderate, the candidate best able to beat Donald Trump. He will hope to scare voters by warning that Trump wants to eviscerate their health care and do away with popular provisions like protecting pre-existing conditions. Other Democrats have sounded similar alarms, but have also vowed to throw the existing system under the bus.

Biden should be a winner here, appealing to a population worried about rising health care costs but, in the main, content with the coverage they have. With all the concerns raised about our existing medical and insurance offerings, it is startling that Gallup finds more than three-quarters of Americans "have consistently rated the quality of their healthcare positively" over the past 18 years while roughly two-thirds have said their coverage is excellent or good over the same period. 

Biden is running against the progressive tide, and many moderate Democrats, appalled by the leftward lurch of their party, are ready to support him. But if he can't avoid obvious bloopers that undermine his message, he will never make it to the finish line. 

Liz Peek is a former partner of major bracket Wall Street firm Wertheim & Company. For 15 years, she has been a columnist for The Fiscal Times, Fox News, the New York Sun and numerous other organizations. Follow her on Twitter: @lizpeek.

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