On several occasions in Wednesday night’s Democratic debate, the NBC moderators invited candidates to take a shot at Senator Elizabeth Warren, and neither of her fellow senators, Amy Klobuchar or Cory Booker, took the bait. But one candidate may have planted a land mine under her candidacy—and she wasn’t even his target.
The moment came when the 10 participants were asked, by a show of hands, who would dispense entirely with private health insurance. Only New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Warren signaled “yes.” That’s when former Rep. John Delaney, one of the least visible of the 24 announced candidates, weighed in.
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After pushing back on the idea of taking something away from Americans that most are reasonably happy with, Delaney said this:
“Also it’s bad policy. If you go to every hospital in this country and you ask them one question, which is how would it have been for you last year if every one of your bills were paid at the Medicare rate? Every single hospital administrator said they would close. And the Medicare for All bill requires payments to stay at current Medicare rates. So to some extent we’re basically supporting a bill that will have every hospital closed.” And then he finished with a stinger about his electrician father on union health insurance: “He’d look at me, and he’d say ‘Good job, John, for getting health care for every American, but why are you taking my health care away?’”
As an argument inside the Democratic Party, where “Medicare for All” is a rallying cry, this may not resonate. But once there’s a general election, it’s a new landscape, and if Warren—or Bernie Sanders, who shares the “no private insurance” view—makes it to that stage, it could be a much bigger deal. We know from earlier races that moments with little impact inside a primary can have a powerful impact in the final fall.
In April 1988, just before the New York primary, long-shot contender Al Gore went after Gov. Michael Dukakis on the issue of crime. Why, he wanted to know, did Massachusetts have a program of weekend furloughs for convicted criminals? Dukakis more or less conceded that the program hadn’t worked, and that seemed to be the end of that: Within a few days, Dukakis had won the New York primary, Gore dropped out of the race, and the issue disappeared.
Only it didn’t. Over in the campaign of George H.W. Bush, aide James Pinkerton heard the debate and decided to look into the question. And what the campaign found was Willie Horton, the convicted murderer serving a life sentence who, on a weekend furlough, went on a crime spree, including assault, armed robbery and multiple rapes. For Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater, it was a gift from the gods. “I’m going to make Willie Horton [Dukakis’] running mate,” he said.
Sure enough, Bush picked up Al Gore’s ball in the general election, raising the issue in his convention acceptance speech.
“I’m the one who believes it is a scandal to give a weekend furlough to a hardened first-degree killer who hasn’t even served enough time to be eligible for parole,” he said. The campaign put out a TV ad labeled “Revolving Door,” showing convicts literally leaving prison through a revolving door. And an independent political action committee produced a far more incendiary and racially loaded ad, featuring the mugshot of the obviously black Willie Horton.
So what’s the parallel? Delaney might have been talking to the very, very, very long-shot mayor of New York. But the other person who raised her hand to essentially scrap private insurance was the much more plausible Senator Warren. And a Democratic former congressman—not some right-wing think tank or Freedom Caucus Republican—was saying, on TV, that her policy would threaten the survival of just about every hospital in the country, and yank good insurance from working people.
This raises the specter of a serious threat, should Warren or Sanders emerge as the nominee. You can call it the “your own man says so!” rule, named after schoolyard ballgame disputes, where the acknowledgment by a member of one team that his or her teammate was out settles the argument. It’s what happened when almost half the Republican Party refused to support Barry Goldwater because of his “extremist” views, giving his opponents an easy way to torpedo his candidacy. It happened when George McGovern’s opponents in his own party, including former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, accused him of ideas that would cut the muscle out of American defenses.
And a year from now—an eternity in campaign time, but not too long to keep the issue warm in a big oppo file—it wouldn’t be hard at all for Donald Trump, on Twitter and in ads and on a debate stage, to point out that a member of Warren’s own party, sharing the same stage, implied that her health care ideas would be dangerous for America. (The same applies in spades for self-identified socialist Sanders.)
Republicans have spent most of the past 100 years leveling Democratic social programs as “socialist” or “dangerous.” As a general proposition, those attacks have fallen on barren ground. But in suggesting that a major plank of two potential nominees could wreak havoc on the system, John Delaney may have left a ticking time bomb on his party’s hopes for the White House.