The Democrats' Single-Payer Trap

This is no time for purges.
10/11/2017 07:49 am ET Updated Oct 11, 2017
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Behold the Republican Party, Democrats — and be warned.

The GOP’s ongoing train wreck — the defeat of its malign health care “reform,” the fratricidal troglodyte Roy Moore, and Donald Trump’s serial idiocies — has heartened Democrats. But before commencing a happy dance, they should contemplate the mirror.

They will see the absence of a compelling message. The party desperately needs a broad and unifying economic agenda — which includes but transcends health care — to create more opportunity for more Americans.

Instead, emulating right-wing Republicans, too many on the left are demanding yet another litmus test of doctrinal purity: single-payer health care. Candidates who waver, they threaten, will face primary challenges.

As politics and policy, this is gratuitously dictatorial — and dangerously dumb.

The principle at stake is universal health care. Single-payer is but one way of getting there — as shown by the disparate approaches of countries that embrace health care as a right.

Within the Democratic Party, the discussion of these choices has barely begun. Senator Bernie Sanders advocates “Medicare for all,” expanding the current program for seniors. This would come at considerable cost — Sanders includes a 7.5 percent payroll tax among his list of funding options; others foresee an overall federal tax increase of 25 percent. But the dramatically increased taxes and spending required, proponents insist, would be offset by savings in premiums and out-of-pocket costs.

Skeptics worry. Some estimate that Sanders’s proposal would cost $1.4 trillion a year — a 35 percent increase in a 2018 budget that calls for $4 trillion overall. It is not hard to imagine this program gobbling up other programs important to Democrats, including infrastructure, environmental protection, affordable college, and retraining for those dislocated by economic change.

Critics also emphasize that the countries addressing health care through single-payer systems are a distinct minority. Why? Controlling costs can translate into circumscribed benefits; as a corollary, single-payer countries have failed to stem rising costs. Nor do these countries match the United States in areas like preventive care, dental care, and cancer prevention — America’s problem is that these services are unavailable to all.

For these reasons, most countries aspiring to universal care have multi-payer systems, which incorporate some role for private insurance, including France, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. Government covers most, but not all, of health care expenditures. Even Medicare, the basis for Sanderscare, allows seniors to purchase supplemental insurance — a necessity for many.

In short, single-payer sounds simpler than it is. Yet to propitiate the Democratic left, 16 senators have signed on to Sanders’s proposal, including potential 2020 hopefuls Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Kirsten Gillibrand. Less enthused are Democratic senators facing competitive reelection battles in 2018: Only one, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, has followed suit.

The Darwinian world of the GOP presents a cautionary tale — a party sucked into the fever swamp of the right. The reason for this dynamic is that Republicans in Congress fear a primary challenge from someone who is even more extreme. The result is not a competition of ideas, but a frenzied contest to mesmerize the base with false promises and hallucinatory rhetoric. Little wonder that the congressional GOP is a chaotic and factitious mess, unable to pass even bad bills — let alone cooperate with moderates and Democrats in passing tolerable ones.

This is the harrowing landscape the “single-payer or death” Democrats would replicate. Like “repeal and replace,” sweeping but unexamined ideas are often fated to collapse. Sanderscare may never be more popular than now — and even now its broader appeal is dubious.

Democrats must remember how hard it was to pass Obamacare. In the real world, Medicare for all will not become law anytime soon. In the meanwhile, the way to appeal to moderates and disaffected Democrats is not by promising to raise their taxes, but by fixing Obamacare’s flaws.

To enact a broad progressive agenda, the party must speak to voters nationwide, drawing on both liberals and moderates. Thus candidates in Massachusetts or Montana must address the preferences of their community. Otherwise Democrats will achieve nothing for those who need them most.

Primary fights to the death over single payer will accomplish nothing good — including for those who want to pass single-payer. Parties do not expand through purges.

Democrats should be clear. It is intolerable that our fellow citizens should die or suffer needlessly, or be decimated by financial and medical calamity. A compassionate and inclusive society must provide quality health care for all.

The question is how best to do this. The party should stimulate that debate — not end it.

Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Boston Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.’’ Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.

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