Sen. Kamala D. Harris is briefed by staff in San Francisco on June 1. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

For the second time in a few months, Sen. Kamala D. Harris found herself backtracking on a statement in support of eliminating the private health insurance system. After offering what sounded like a full-throated argument for Medicare-for-all during the Thursday night Democratic presidential debate, she promptly walked the statement back, saying she misinterpreted the question.

It was a puzzling moment. Harris had been in this exact same place in January. At that time, she seemed to indicate she backed a quick transition to Medicare-for-all during a CNN town hall. She quickly backpedaled: Just one day later, her staff said she supported Medicare-for-all as well as a more gradual opening of the system.

So how could she get into a mess like this again?

Some of the fault here accrues to NBC anchor Lester Holt, who did indeed ask about support for Medicare-for-all in such a way that it could sound as if he was asking if the subjects themselves wanted to do away with their personal health insurance. But some of the fault goes to Harris, too. On both CNN in January and Thursday night on NBC, she went on about the benefits of Medicare-for-all in such a way that it sounded as if she was talking about Sen. Bernie Sanders’s interpretation of the term, without once mentioning her own, more expansive take on the idea.

It’s likely Harris is trying to square a circle. She’s attempting to compete in the progressive lane of the Democratic Party, where many Sanders supporters consider not supporting a single-payer system something of a dealbreaker.

But Harris, after a second mix-up, can no longer afford to play this game. It risks making her look sloppy, inconsistent and pandering, a combination any candidate can ill afford. As a result, she needs to answer the question in a clearer fashion, against eliminating private insurance. Will this risk annoying a few very progressive voters? Almost certainly. But it also happens to be the position of the vast majority of the American people. Polling shows the majority of Americans think this is exactly what the phrase “Medicare-for-all” means — that you can continue to choose the private system, or buy in to the public one. The idea happens to be quite popular, with almost 3 of out of 4 voters saying they support it.

And Thursday night, in fact, offered a way to talk about all this. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand outlined the most reasonable way to get their through a voluntary Medicare “buy-in transition period”:

The quickest way you get there is you create competition with the insurers. God bless the insurers if they want to compete, they can certainly try. But, they’d never put people over their profits and I doubt they ever will. So, what will happen is people will choose Medicare. You will transition. We would get to Medicare for All. And then your step to single payer is so short.

It’s hard to disagree with this analysis. In a country where health insurance costs continue to grow at rates well in excess of inflation, where more than half of people receiving insurance from their employer are facing a four-figure deductible and where, if Americans get ill, many literally face financial ruin unless they get lucky on GoFundMe, it’s common sense that many will switch over — likely sooner rather than later.

And luckily for all of us, not to mention Harris, there is legislation on Capitol Hill promoting this plan. In the House, it’s called Medicare for America, and it’s sponsored by Reps. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). In the Senate, it goes by the name the Choose Medicare Act, co-sponsored by Sens. Chris Muphy (D-Conn.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). Harris certainly knows about it — she’s a co-sponsor as well, the same way she’s a co-sponsor of Sanders’s Medicare-for-all bill.

While the Choose Medicare Act is almost certain to go nowhere in the Republican-controlled Senate, Democrats hold the majority in the House. Perhaps House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ought to let it come up for a vote. Let Republicans explain to the American people why they support Medicare for Americans over the age of 65 but not for those who are likely to be younger, healthier and less costly to the system.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Five questions we are left with after the debates

Stephen Stromberg: The question that separated the serious from the ridiculous

Eugene Robinson: Kamala Harris got everyone’s attention. Can she keep it?

Paul Waldman: Do the 2020 Democrats really want to ‘abolish’ private insurance?

The Post’s View: You can’t have it all — even with Medicare-for-all