“I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer universal health care program,” Barack Obama said on June 30, 2003, as a member of the Illinois State Senate. “A single-payer health care plan, a universal health care plan. That’s what I’d like to see. But as all of you know, we may not get there immediately.”
He was correct that we did not get there immediately.
Part of the reason is that by the time Obama was a candidate for president of the United States, he had backed off from his public statements about single-payer and was advocating the approach that finally became the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
But the earlier remarks are telling, in that they demonstrate that the left never saw Obamacare as a final destination, but rather as a stepping stone to a single-payer system.
The failure of ‘repeal and replace’ should caution the Democrats against pushing single-payer
Now that the Republicans have utterly failed to repeal and replace the ACA as promised, there is pressure on the left to “get there immediately,” or at least get the car started again.
Bernie Sanders, the septuagenarian leader of millennial leftists, is now pushing a new “Medicare for All” bill that would fulfill Obama’s 2003 dreams. He is doing so with his eyes wide open, realizing that his legislation has zero chance of actually becoming law.
“Look, I have no illusions that under a Republican Senate and a very right-wing House and an extremely right-wing president of the United States, that suddenly we’re going to see a Medicare-for-all, single-payer passed,” he recently told National Public Radio. “You’re not going to see it. That’s obvious.”
So why is he doing it? For the same reason Republicans repeatedly repealed Obamacare when they knew there was absolutely no chance of the president signing the bill: It’s much easier to vote for a bill that is doomed at the outset than it is to take responsibility for making real laws. It’s legislation-as-campaign-slogan.
The pitfalls of legislation-as-campaign-slogan
It’s telling that, unlike Bernie, most Democrats are far less willing to admit their desire for single-payer system for fear of the electoral consequences.
Last month, Senate Republicans called their bluff by holding a vote on single-payer to force their colleagues across the aisle to go on record in support of a government-run system. Most of them simply voted “present.” Not a single senator voted “yes.”
That’s not surprising, given that support for single-payer system is mired at 33 percent in the latest Pew Research poll conducted in June, which is roughly the same number as President Trump’s current approval rating.
But while Trump’s numbers continue to fall, support for a single-payer system is on the upswing. The percentage in support in Pew’s January poll was 28 percent.
Democrats are hopeful that they can drive the discussion in their direction, so that if they’re able to retake Congress, they can do more than just talk about it. Yet the Republican inability to deliver on repeal and replace ought to give pause to Democrats who think they can accomplish something through empty gestures to appease their political base.