If the Hillary Clinton campaign had its way, supporters of Bernie Sanders – whose backing she will obviously want in November should she win the Democratic nomination – would feel that, while Clinton might not be all that they want in a president, she would at least go part of the way there. But if you followed the third debate deep enough into the night, you witnessed, in what stands as the most disingenuous moment of the Democratic race thus far, Clinton not simply disagreeing with Sanders on his Medicare For All, single payer health insurance plan, but knowingly distorting it. This was not Hillary Clinton offering a more moderate version of a solution, this was Hillary Clinton acting as part of the problem.
Clinton argued that the Sanders plan “really does transfer every bit of our health care system including private health care, to the states to have the states run. And I think we've got to be really thoughtful about how we're going to afford what we proposed.” Between that and Sanders’s public university free tuition plan, she said “we’re looking at 18 to $20 trillion.” And indeed, the single-payer bill Sanders introduced in 2013 called for a 2.2 percent tax on individual incomes up to $200,000 and couples up to $250,000 (and higher rates for higher brackets), a group she pledges would see no tax increases under a Clinton administration. But the reason that a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found 52 percent of Democrats strongly backing a Medicare For All plan, and another 29 percent somewhat favoring it, is that they understand that there is a payback for that tax increase. And so does Hillary Clinton.
In ignoring the fact that a single payer plan would, as Sanders quickly pointed out, do “away with the cost of private insurance,” meaning that “the middle class will be paying substantially less for health care,” not only was Clinton wrong on the claim that the Sanders plan would cost the middle class more, but she knew it. As Sanders said of her, “I know you know a lot about health care.” Hillary Clinton, let’s remember, was the point person for Bill Clinton’s unsuccessful 1993 health insurance reform, to the point where it was sometimes called “Hillarycare.” People have applied a lot of negative labels to Hillary Clinton over the years, but “stupid” is not one you hear very often. This was not an actor like Ronald Reagan, delivering lines he may or may not have understood. This was not George W. Bush, struggling over words and concepts. It was a telling, cynical moment.
In a 2004 interview, Senator Elizabeth Warren (then a professor) told Bill Moyers that when explaining a banking industry-backed bankruptcy bill to First Lady Clinton in the late 1990s she found that “I never had a smarter student.” Warren went on to tell how Clinton flipped from opponent to proponent of the bill, however, once she saw herself as representing Wall Street in the Senate.
The health care story is similar. Back then, the for-profit health insurance industry went all out to obfuscate the facts of the Clinton bill, most memorably with a series of TV ads featuring a pair of actors named Harry and Louise. Yet by the time Senator Clinton was running for reelection in 2006, yesterday’s enemies had become today’s campaign contributors. The New York Times reported her the second highest recipient of health care industry campaign contributions, trailing only Republican Senator Rick Santorum. Washington health care lawyer and lobbyist Frederick H. Graefe told the paper that “People in many industries, including health care, are contributing to Senator Clinton today because they fully expect she will be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008.” Therefore he felt that “If the usual rules apply,” early donors would “get a seat at the table when health care and other issues are discussed.”
Sanders, of course, famously does not take such contributions – and there we have the root of the difference. So, much as Clinton might hope Sanders backers won’t fret too much about her supposed inevitability as the nominee because she’ll at least give us Bernie-Lite, it ain’t necessarily so. As Sanders charged in an earlier debate, there’s always a price to be paid for becoming a darling of the corporate world. And it’s generally the people Clinton claims she’ll shield from tax increases who wind up actually paying it.
Those overwhelming numbers of Democrats who support a Medicare For All approach obviously include many Clinton supporters. One hopes they will not sit quietly by as their candidate carries corporate America’s dishonest baggage.