Recent state elections — the Democratic landslide in Virginia, followed by Democratic gubernatorial victories in Kentucky and Louisiana — have been bad news for Donald Trump.
Among other things, the election results vindicate polls indicating that Trump is historically unpopular. All of these races were in part referendums on Trump, who put a lot of effort into backing his preferred candidates. And in each case voters gave him a clear thumbs down.
Beyond offering a verdict on Trump, however, I’d argue that the state elections offered some guidance on an issue that has divided Democrats, namely health care. What the results suggested to me was the virtue of medium-size reform: incremental enough to have a good chance of being enacted, big enough to provide tangible benefits that voters don’t want taken away.
Remember, there was a third governor’s race, in Mississippi, in which the GOP held on. True, Mississippi is a very red state, which Trump won by 18 points in 2016. But Louisiana and Kentucky are or were, if anything, even redder, with Trump margins of 20 and 30 points respectively. So what made the difference?
Personalities surely mattered. Louisiana’s reelected John Bel Edwards was widely liked, Kentucky’s defeated Matt Bevin widely disliked. Demography probably also mattered. Urban and especially suburban voters have turned hard against Trump, but rural voters haven’t, at least so far — and Mississippi is one of the few states left with a majority-rural population.
But there’s another difference among the three states. Kentucky and Louisiana took advantage of the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid, leading to steep drops in the number of uninsured residents; Mississippi hasn’t. This meant that voting Democratic in Kentucky and Louisiana meant voting to preserve past policy success, while the same vote in Mississippi was at best about hope for future reform — a much less powerful motivator.
Back in 2010, as Obamacare was about to squeak through Congress, Nancy Pelosi famously declared, “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.” This line was willfully misrepresented by Republicans (and some reporters who should have known better) as an admission that there was something underhanded about the way the legislation was enacted. What she meant, however, was that voters wouldn’t fully appreciate the ACA until they experienced its benefits in real life.
It took years to get there, but in the end Pelosi was proved right, as health care became a winning issue for Democrats. In the 2018 midterms and in subsequent state elections, voters punished politicians whom they suspected of wanting to undermine key achievements like protection for preexisting conditions and, yes, Medicaid expansion.
And this political reality has arguably set the stage for further action. At this point, as far as I can tell, all of the contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination are calling for a significant expansion of the government’s role in health care, although they differ about how far and how fast to go.
Which brings me to the latest development in intra-Democratic policy disputes: Elizabeth Warren’s proposal for a two-step approach to health reform. Her idea is to start with actions — some requiring no legislation at all, others requiring only a simple Senate majority — that would greatly expand health insurance coverage. These actions would, if successful, deliver tangible benefits to millions.
They would not, however, amount to the full Bernie, eliminating private insurance and going full single-payer. Warren still says that this is her eventual intention, and has laid out a plan to pay for such a system. But any legislative push would wait three years, giving time for voters to see the benefits of the initial changes.
Sanders supporters are, predictably, crying betrayal. For them it’s all or nothing: a commitment to single-payer has to be in the legislation from Day 1.
The trouble with such demands, aside from the strong probability that proposing elimination of private insurance would be a liability in the general election, is that such legislation would almost certainly fail to pass even a Democratic Senate. So all or nothing would, in practice, mean nothing.
But is Warren giving up on Medicare for All? After all, what she’s offering isn’t really a transition plan in the usual sense, since there’s no guarantee that Step 2 would ever happen.
The lesson I take from the politics of Obamacare, however, is that successful health reform, even if incomplete, creates the preconditions for further reform. What looks impossible now might look very different once tens of millions of additional people have actual experience with expanded Medicare, and can compare it with private insurance.
Although I’ve long argued against making Medicare for All a purity test, there is a good case for eventually going single-payer. But the only way that’s going to happen is via something like Warren’s approach: initial reforms that deliver concrete benefits, and maybe provide a steppingstone to something even bigger.
Paul Krugman, Ph.D., winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.