The main occupation of the GOP at this point in history is the defense of public corruption, which is a particularly insidious form of corruption. Those who excuse Trump’s abuses of power will not escape his taint.
And yet — at this low point of presidential character and congressional GOP courage — perhaps the most politically talented Democratic challenger to Trump in 2020, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), is six points behind the president in Michigan, even with Trump in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and four points behind Trump in Florida (according to recent surveys by the New York Times Upshot and Siena College).
This should horrify Democrats. One of the most exciting, substantive, compelling voices in their presidential field would stand a good chance of reelecting President Trump. And this is not a problem that can be solved through good speeches and clever advertising. The weak points that Trump would exploit are the centerpieces of Warren’s campaign — the very reasons that Democrats are falling for her.
The health-care issue symbolizes the problem. In producing her recent funding plan for Medicare-for-all, Warren doubled down on ending private health insurance in the United States. This ideological boldness is precisely what many Democrats like about her. But now Warren has very little flexibility to make her plan seem less disruptive and frightening in a general election against Trump. “You can’t unring that bell,” says William A. Galston of the Brookings Institution.
This presents three difficulties. First, Warren is proposing to hugely expand the role and reach of government in our lives, and to spend an additional $20.5 trillion (or more) over 10 years, at a time when trust in government is near an all-time low. Her plan to socialize — there is no other word for it — the health insurance industry fights against a swift current of public skepticism.
Second, Obamacare, which Warren proposes to replace, has stabilized over time. Though it never achieved what its champions promised, it has reduced the number of uninsured Americans and provided some useful lessons for the next rounds of reform. This argues in favor of incremental changes — of the kind former vice president Joe Biden proposes — rather than the dramatic transformation of a system that would displace insurance arrangements for tens of millions.
Third, Warren’s contention that Medicare-for-all can be created without middle-class tax increases remains questionable, in spite of her recently released, 26-page funding proposal. In Galston’s view, the Warren approach relies on optimistic cost and revenue estimates that the Urban Institute and others have sharply disputed. It doesn’t account for the likely responses of corporations and wealthy individuals to massive tax increases. It assumes huge cuts in defense spending and the passage of comprehensive immigration reform. And it assumes that non-rural hospitals can meet their costs based on 110 percent (or less) of current Medicare payments.
When Biden was asked about Warren’s funding approach, he replied: “She’s making it up.” There is serious evidence to support that charge — and it will be Warren’s burden to answer it during the Nov. 20 debate.
The main question that Warren faces as a candidate is this: Can she eventually transform her public image from being a progressive populist to being a mere populist? Her health-care proposal indicates she cannot. Trump’s charge of socialism — more accurately, SOCIALISM! — may seem hyperbolic. But it is more likely to stick when a candidate proposes to abolish all private health insurance, put a government bureaucracy in charge and spend an additional $2 trillion a year on her ambitions.
It is always tempting to view the weakness of a political opponent as an opportunity to gain total ideological victory. But in the case of Trump, this would be a blunder. If the 2018 midterms are any indication, the president has shed supporters at the more moderate edges of his coalition. And they will be attracted by stability and incrementalism, not disruption and radicalism — no matter how principled and well explained.