The Democratic Party is riding to President Trump’s rescue on healthcare with talk of repealing Obamacare and eliminating private insurance in favor of a government system that has drawn the skepticism of American voters.
The move could offer a political lifeline to Trump. His stubborn commitment to “repealing and replacing” Obamacare, once a winning message, has left him vulnerable on healthcare — a key voter priority. A Democratic nominee who also proposes junking Obamacare, albeit by different means, could hand the issue back to Trump and strengthen his hand in critical electoral battlegrounds.
Democrats struggled for nearly a decade after Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law to gain the upper hand on healthcare, finally being rewarded by the voters in the 2018 midterm elections after years of suffering electoral losses. Now, a few of the party’s leading presidential contenders propose junking Obamacare and the private insurance market under the guise of “Medicare for all.”
“If people want private insurance, they should have that choice. I think that’s the smarter position,” veteran Democratic strategist Joe Trippi said. “It just blunts any Republican ability to move on healthcare at all.”
The 2009–2010 debate over the legislation that became the Affordable Care Act, and then enactment and implementation of the law in the subsequent years of the Obama presidency, arguably cost the Democratic Party control of the House and Senate, plus nearly 1,000 seats in state legislatures across the country. Public opinion began to turn after Trump took office and Republicans, then in full command of Congress, pushed to repeal and replace Obamacare.
By last fall’s midterm elections, Democrats recaptured the House in part because they vowed to protect Obamacare from Republican efforts to repeal it. More than six months later, 46% of all adults view the law favorably and 40% unfavorably, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll. Forty-seven percent of independent voters, a crucial bloc in presidential contests, hold similarly positive views.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, aggressively defended Obamacare as he won a tough, 2018 reelection bid in a state Trump won by more than 20 points. Taking away Americans’ private coverage and forcing them to sign up for government insurance would meet fierce opposition, at least in states like Montana, Tester said. The third-term senator, who for years experienced headwinds over his support for Obamacare, is finally enjoying the fruits of his political investment.
“I’m not for only a government-offered insurance. I think, strengthen the ACA, potentially put in a public option in so people would have a choice,” Tester said during a brief interview with the Washington Examiner. The problem with putting the federal government in charge of healthcare, Tester explained, “is No. 1, how you pay for it? And No. 2, what does that do for the people that have insurance?”
Tester said railroaders and other workers in his state who have generous, employer-based healthcare would aggressively resist attempts to eliminate private coverage. Top labor officials are issuing similar warnings, saying rank-and-file union members in key swing states would flee to Trump in 2020 if the Democratic nominee advocates for wiping away benefits they negotiated through collective bargaining agreements.
Liesl Hickey, a senior Republican strategist who has watched her party’s fortunes rise and fall on the healthcare issue and keeps close tabs on suburban voters, where support for Trump is soft, said Democrats would be foolish to squander the political high ground. Hickey predicted a Democratic nominee who runs on abolishing private insurance and putting Washington in charge of healthcare would be doing exactly that, reviving the president’s fortunes with disaffected Republicans in the process.
“Democrats are totally overreaching and it will backfire. Americans are mostly happy with their private insurance. To just scrap the whole thing? Nobody is there,” she said.
Among the leading Democratic contenders, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders propose abolishing private insurance and transitioning to a government system they dub “Medicare for all.” Kamala Harris has hedged. On some occasions, she has pledged to put the government in control, while at other times she has said she supports maintaining access to private insurance.
Democrats like Joe Biden, Obama’s vice president, and Pete Buttigieg, are proponents of preserving and “strengthening” the Affordable Care Act, in part by adding the option to purchase Medicare-style coverage from the government. Reducing the cost of premiums and deductibles tops Americans’ concerns about healthcare, and polls have shown that voters are suspicious that putting the government in charge would solve this pressing problem.