2016 campaign takes up what 2008 began

For those who believe policy matters as least as much as politics, last week provided a revelatory moment. Hillary Clinton, who’s fallen behind Bernie Sanders for New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary, attacked the candidate with whom she’d amicably shared the stage up to now.

Politicians who feel their lead slipping always criticize opponents, but how they do so is telling. On Jan. 12, Clinton dispatched her daughter, Chelsea, to New Hampshire to tell an audience that Sanders’ “Medicare for All” proposal would destroy health insurance as we know it.

Specifically, Chelsea Clinton said Sanders’ plan would “dismantle Obamacare, dismantle the CHIP program, dismantle Medicare, and dismantle private insurance,” adding it “would empower Republican governors to take away Medicaid.” The basis for this astonishing claim is the technicality that Sanders’ plan would abolish private insurance while replacing it with the guaranteed, government-administered benefit used by nearly every other advanced nation on the planet.

The moment was far more significant than most of the misleading claims littering our presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton has apparently abandoned the goal of every Democratic president since Harry Truman — to provide a truly national, universal health care system, an issue on which she cut her political teeth.

Clinton came to prominence in 1993 as the voice of her husband, Bill Clinton’s, universal health care plan — a plan Maine Sen. George Mitchell spent his last two years as majority leader trying to pass. The plan failed, but Clinton earned praise for courage and perseverance.

Now, Clinton wants to seem, above all, “pragmatic.” But by attacking the big idea she once embraced, she enters dangerous territory.

The election of 2016 will be another referendum on Obamacare, the biggest change in national policy in a generation. Clinton vows to defend it, but not improve it. She has yet to lay out, in any detail, what she’d do — unlike Sanders, who has.

Clinton is taking a path trodden by too many Democrats. Every Republican presidential candidate still vows to repeal the Affordable Care Act. And the Democratic response to this scorched-earth approach is, often, to change the subject.

Obamacare has had many successes, insuring nearly 20 million more Americans and moderating costs. In 2010, when the Republican barrage was peaking, few Democrats explained how the ACA would bring health care to millions while reforming an enormously costly, inefficient system.

Yet in 2014, after the ACA registered major gains, most Democrats still ignored their party’s signature program. The schizophrenia reached Maine, where House Speaker Mark Eves first said extending free Medicaid coverage to 70,000 Mainers was Maine’s most important issue, then, after five Paul LePage vetoes, fell utterly silent.

Maine still has a chance on Medicaid. President Barack Obama proposes allowing states now signing up to get full 100 percent federal funding for three years — something Maine hospitals, providers and consumers could rally around.

Chances for doing so could dramatically increase if Bernie Sanders’ case that Obamacare needs to be expanded and improved, not dismantled, carries the day.

Our contemporary political scene was shaped by two long-ago elections. First, Barry Goldwater’s Republican conservatism was routed by the 1964 Lyndon Johnson landslide. Then, liberal Democrat George McGovern was swamped by Richard Nixon in 1972 — though the candidate Nixon feared, Maine’s Ed Muskie, was derailed in part because, unlike McGovern, he refused to make Vietnam the centerpiece of his campaign.

The two parties drew opposite lessons from their shellackings, however. Conservatives were soon ascendant among Republicans, electing Ronald Reagan and making tax cuts and dismantling federal programs their blueprint. Democrats instead tacked to the middle, electing Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton but neglecting their New Deal and Great Society successes — notably, Social Security and Medicare.

Now, one Democratic presidential candidate wants to use Social Security and Medicare as building blocks for a health care system that, unlike the current one, won’t cost 50 percent more than any other nation’s while leaving millions uncovered. The other wants to “triangulate” between Democrats and a Republican Party still moving steadily rightward.

The reason why a liberal can contend for the Democratic nomination for the first time in 44 years is clear enough. Americans are rarely united on big political issues, but, across the spectrum, voters believe corporations and Wall Street play too powerful a role in American life, the rich need to pay a larger share of taxes, and ordinary Americans need a pay raise — in sum, a repudiation of Reaganism.

In 2008, Hillary Clinton faded against the challenge of a then little-known senator from Illinois. Eight years later, a senator from Vermont presents an entirely different challenge — one of ideas and belief, and not just maneuvers on a political chessboard.

Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 31 years. Comment is welcomed at: [email protected]


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