Democratic presidential candidates stand onstage for the first round of debates in Miami Thursday. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)
Columnist

Here’s one thing you didn’t hear at the first two Democratic presidential debates, unless you were listening carefully to what candidates didn’t say: Obamacare is a failure.

The Affordable Care Act barely came up. What candidates wanted to talk about was Medicare-for-all.

That is nothing short of extraordinary. In 2010, President Barack Obama signed into law the biggest entitlement expansion, and the most significant health-care reform, since the 1960s. You’d think Democrats would be jostling to claim that mantle for themselves. Instead it was left in a corner, gathering dust, while the candidates moved on to the fashion of the moment.

In fairness, they may have found the garment an uncomfortable fit. The rate of Americans without health-care insurance is now within a percentage point of where it was in the first quarter of 2008, a year before Obama took office. Yet in 2008, the unemployment rate was more than a full percentage point higher than it is now. Given how many people use employer-provided health insurance, the uninsured rate ought to be markedly lower than it was back then.

Overall, the effect of Obamacare seems to be marginal, or perhaps nonexistent.

You can chalk that up to Republican interference, since the uninsured rate has risen substantially in the Trump era. But Democrats weren’t really making that argument, perhaps because they realized that a system so vulnerable to Republican interference isn’t really a very good system.

But even before January 2017, Obamacare was failing to deliver on many of its key promises. At its best point, in November 2016, the reduction in the number of the uninsured was less than the architects of Obamacare had expected. And the claims that Obamacare would “bend the cost curve” had proved, let us say, excessively optimistic.

Adjusted for inflation, consumer out-of-pocket expenditures on health care have been roughly flat since 2007. Obamacare didn’t make them go up, but it didn’t really reduce them, either. The rate of growth in health-services spending has risen substantially since 2013, when Obamacare’s main provisions took effect. And since someone has to pay for all that new spending, premiums have also risen at about the same pace as before Obamacare. So much for saving the average American family $2,500 a year.

Meanwhile, the various proposals that were supposed to streamline care and improve incentives have produced fairly underwhelming results. Accountable-care organizations, which aimed to reorient the system around paying for health rather than treatment, have produced, at best, modest benefits. Meanwhile, a much-touted program to reduce hospital readmissions not only failed to save money, but may also have led to thousands of unnecessary deaths.

Nine years in, when you tot up all the costs and benefits, you end up with . . . a lot of political aggravation for very little progress. No wonder Democrats would rather talk about something else.

And yet, it’s startling that the something else is health care. The U.S. system is a gigantic, expensive mess, but experience indicates that politicians who wade into that mess are apt to emerge covered in toxic sludge, without having made the mess noticeably tidier.

That could be a good argument for Medicare-for-all: The health-care mess has grown so big, so entangled with the detritus from decades of bad policymaking, that it can’t be straightened out. The only thing to do is bulldoze the steaming pile of garbage into a hole and start over.

The argument isn’t unreasonable, even if I don’t agree with it. But it is a policy argument, not a political argument. The political argument in favor of launching into another round of health-care reform is, purely and simply, that a certain portion of the Democratic base wants to hear it.

And a fine reason that is in a primary race. But it then comes to the general election, filled with moderate voters who get anxious when people talk about taking away their private health insurance in favor of a government-run program — as Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) have all done. (On Friday, Harris said she misheard a debate question and changed her position, a flip-flop she has tried before.)

More to the point, whatever the merits of Medicare-for-all, the political obstacles to even the comparatively modest reforms of Obamacare very nearly overwhelmed it — and probably cost Democrats their House majority in 2010. And the compromises that Democrats were forced to make to get even that through Congress left them with a badly drafted program that had insufficient popular support — one that was, in other words, almost doomed to fail. At enormous political cost. It takes either a very brave politician, or a very foolish one, to look at the Obamacare debacle and say, “I want to do that again, except much more so.”

Read more:

Catherine Rampell: If the GOP built their ideal health-care system . . . it’d be Obamacare

J.J. McCullough: Canada’s ‘Pharmacare’ idea will face the same obstacles as Obamacare

Megan McArdle: Elizabeth Warren had better hope voters want radical honesty

Jennifer Rubin: Democrats should heed this warning on health care

Jennifer Rubin: Kamala Harris hits a home run