The media didn’t wake up until Elizabeth Warren started sinking in the polls.
For much of the year, she basically skated on a health care plan that is political suicide. But as the Massachusetts senator surged toward front-runner status, the poll-obsessed press essentially said hey, it’s working. Medicare for All is popular with the party’s progressive wing, Warren has a plan for everything, they’re all geniuses.
And yet, here was a leading Democratic candidate promising to run against President Trump by taking away private health insurance from 150 million Americans. It didn’t take a political genius to realize that this would be an unmitigated disaster in a general election.
But now that Warren has dropped from 27 to 16 percent in the Real Clear Politics polling average, you can hear the sound of pundits slapping their foreheads across America: Holy cow, what a blunder for her to embrace Medicare for All.
The Washington Post, in a front-page piece Sunday, describes the “political turbulence that Warren has experienced in recent weeks as she has attempted to extricate herself from a policy dilemma that has blunted her steady rise to the top ranks of the Democratic nominating contest.”
The New York Times warned the other day that “prominent Democratic leaders are sounding increasingly vocal alarms to try to halt political momentum for ‘Medicare for All’…rather than enter an election year with a sweeping health care proposal that many see as a liability for candidates up and down the ballot.”
And the Daily Beast, describing Warren’s “self-inflicted wound,” quoted an unnamed aide to a 2020 Democrat calling the proposal “f*** poison. You touch it, you turn to dust.”
Yet the press should have been all over this months ago. There was a blind spot, it seems to me, because journalists spend too much time on liberal Twitter, where government-run health insurance is beloved. And Warren did not get the usual front-runner scrutiny as her substantive campaign caught on, certainly not compared to the pummeling of Joe Biden.
And the biggest beneficiary has been Pete Buttigieg, a relative moderate who has campaigned against her approach.
The senator had signed onto the Bernie Sanders plan to make sure he couldn’t outflank her on the left, and now she’s paying the price.
Obviously, articles were written about Medicare for All and how it might be risky. Moderators dutifully asked Warren about it in several debates, and she repeatedly ducked questions on whether middle-class taxes would have to rise, focusing instead on what she claimed would be lower costs. But after each debate most journalists just moved on, and there was little follow-up in the Trump-centric environment.
Finally, Warren unveiled a gargantuan $20-trillion tax plan that simply fueled questions about paying for the massive program. And then she retreated, saying she wouldn’t push Medicare for All until the third year of her presidency—ostensibly to allow more transition time but in reality to slide the plan onto the back burner.
Warren and Sanders argue that they need big bold ideas to energize their voters. But there’s a reason that Nancy Pelosi says she’s not a fan of the plan, and that Barack Obama cautions left-leaning Democrats about touting a revolution.
The Post story said Warren had been warned that Medicare for All was a time bomb. Barney Frank, her fellow Massachusetts liberal, said he’d privately told her that backing Bernie on health care was “a terrible mistake” and that her shift should have come earlier.
“The irony is that a candidate whose political identity has been built in part on her reputation as a policy wonk — a potential president who boasts of having a plan for nearly every challenge facing everyday Americans — has been tripped up by a policy issue that has dominated politics and defined her party for years.”
The Times piece says many in the party “are gravely concerned about the impact that having a presidential nominee who backs Medicare for All at the top of the ticket would have on the most vulnerable Democratic candidates.” The paper quotes Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo as saying, “When you say Medicare for all, it’s a risk. It makes people feel afraid.”
Many Democrats with short memories forget how hard it was for Obama to pass the Affordable Care Act by a single vote, and that the flawed program has finally become popular after Trump repeatedly tried to abolish it. Allowing people to opt into Medicare, as Biden, Buttigieg and some others favor, would be a significant step forward for the party. Junking the program in favor of mandated government care — taking away people’s choice — was always pie in the sky.
But until Warren lost her polling lead, that obvious fact remained hidden in plain sight.