Elizabeth Warren’s New Health Care Plan Would Doom the Fight for Medicare for All

Elizabeth Warren's new health care proposal, released yesterday, is practically tailor-made to divide, depress, marginalize, and exhaust any political will for single payer before we've even begun the final fight.

Senator Elizabeth Warren speaking with attendees at the Presidential Gun Sense Forum at the Iowa Events Center on August 10, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

A recurring argument for Bernie Sanders in this primary is that he understands our obstacles are primarily political, not technocratic, and that he would bring a movement of activists with him to fight for his agenda.

Elizabeth Warren’s new health care proposal, released yesterday, presents a direct contrast to that approach. NBC News describes its basic architecture:

Warren, D-Mass., released her plan for transitioning the country to a Medicare for All health care system Friday, splitting the effort into two legislative pushes that would happen over her first term in office, but holding off — at first — on ending the role of private insurance companies.

It is perfectly obvious to anyone who thinks about this for five seconds how it would actually play out.

During the first “legislative push,” Republicans would argue that Warren’s first bill is a radical communist government power grab doomed to dysfunction and failure — and single-payer activists would be backed into either abandoning the project or insisting that yes, the public-private plan is actually quite reasonable and good. This would

  1. Split the movement along entirely predictable lines that are completely familiar to left organizers — “let’s work with Democrats” versus “we must hold the line”;
  2. Undermine the commitment and investment of activists who have reluctantly decided to support a bill that is at odds with what they think really needs to happen with health care in the United States;
  3. Center Warren’s first plan as the “reasonable” compromise, and the second plan as an unnecessarily radical instance of Democrats pressing their advantage; and
  4. Exhaust everyone before picking the second fight.

There is no way the fight for single payer would survive Warren’s plan. It is practically tailor-made to divide, depress, marginalize, and exhaust any political will for single payer before we’ve even begun the final fight.

A skeptic might say that Warren must certainly know that this would happen, and is simply triangulating between Bernie and Buttigieg at this point — but her motives are really beside the point. We can generously say that she is being naive, and it nevertheless remains the case that Warren’s plan cannot possibly succeed in what it supposedly sets out to do.

Which returns us to the difference between Sanders and Warren. Sanders understands that this is a political fight, and that’s why he insists on settling this in one bill — an approach that stands the best chance of keeping the public mobilized. Warren, for all her technocratic savvy, has badly misunderstood the political problem at hand: and that is why her plan, and so many of her plans, are doomed to fail.