California Democratic Senator Kamala Harris told CNN that she is in favor of eliminating the private health insurance system in favor of a Medicare for All system. This is a pretty bold statement, and one that many health policy wonks even on the political left doubt can be achieved any time soon.
But before long, Harris’s staff panicked and informed CNN she is open to compromise:
As the furor grew, a Harris adviser on Tuesday signaled that the candidate would also be open to the more moderate health reform plans, which would preserve the industry, being floated by other congressional Democrats. It represents a compromise position that risks angering “Medicare-for-all” proponents, who view eliminating private health insurance as key to enacting their comprehensive reform.
Both the adviser and Harris national press secretary Ian Sams said her willingness to consider alternate routes to a single payer system should not cast doubt on her commitment to the policy.
“Medicare-for-all is the plan that she believes will solve the problem and get all Americans covered. Period,” Sams told CNN. “She has co-sponsored other pieces of legislation that she sees as a path to getting us there, but this is the plan she is running on.”
In other words, Harris is fine with the single-payer bill written by Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders. She is also fine with other pieces of legislation she has co-sponsored that fall far short of that. She’s fine with anything, really.
Her press staff then jumped into action and tried to push back against…her own campaign’s statements?
(Adams worked for the 2016 Clinton campaign, so she by now is well-familiar with having a candidate who takes multiple positions to try to appeal to everyone.)
The immediate explanation many observers have jumped to is that Harris has no intention of passing the Medicare for All bill — she wants to signal that she would be able to accept far less, and she may end up doing that instead. Having her cake and eating it too — it’s a cynical explanation.
That’s probably right. As Josh Barro points out, Harris’s priorities are all of out of sync. The most likely way the government would pay for single-payer health care is via payroll taxes on Americans, just like we pay for Social Security and Medicare. Harris is campaigning on a significant tax cut for middle class workers. It’s directly contrary to her own campaign strategy.
But there’s another possible explanation. Harris has never moved major legislation in her life. Her various roles in government never included being a legislator in a legislature or an executive overseeing legislation. She hasn’t passed any bills during her time short time in the Senate.
As I said before, many health policy wonks doubt single-payer can be passed in one fell swoop. But the Sanders Medicare for All bill is increasingly politically popular, and it serves as an anchor in a political debate. If you already start offering compromises and accepting less, you’ll end up with even less at the end of the day. Lawmakers who pass bills generally know this (Sanders knows this).
Try to name some bills that grew more ambitious as they went through the legislative process. Other than defense appropriations, it’s really hard to think of anything that could fit the bill. Showing you’re open to compromise before negotiations even begin means you’re either not serious about the goal or you don’t share the goal or you simply don’t have much experience as a lawmaker.
Harris may genuinely not know how to pass big legislation because she has never done it before.