The DFL’s annual Humphrey-Mondale dinner Friday featured presentations by Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The two presidential candidates made basically no news. Sanders said exactly what he always says, which I’ve written about plenty.
Clinton’s message tends to vary a bit more from week to week, which is a small gift to journalists. The version delivered Friday night in St. Paul contained no real news but it represented the current state of her argument why she, and not Sanders (although she seldom mentions him explicitly), should be the Democratic nominee for president.
The last time Clinton and Sanders debated, I described what makes Sanders a “radical.” You could easily use Clinton’s St. Paul address to illustrate why she is a liberal seeking incremental change that, she argues, is more achievable than the kind of radical change Sanders advocates. (In fact, the word “achievable” is part of her pitch. She prefers the word “progressive” over “liberal,” but let’s skip a long discussion of that.)
Her presentation in St. Paul was loaded up with slightly oblique remarks that translate to: Bernie is a dreamer, but he can’t deliver. I’m a pragmatist who can. Bernie is a radical, but America is not open to radical change. I’m a pragmatic liberal who will find ways to make practical, achievable progress toward the goals that all liberals share.
This message takes various forms, and it’s impressive how many ways there are to phrase that message without mentioning Sanders by name. For example, here are two from her St. Paul remarks:
“I don’t make promises I can’t keep.”
“I’m a progressive who actually likes to make progress.”
These statements and others like them are part of her standard speech nowadays. I don’t suppose you need my help in decoding them, but they amount to: Bernie is promising things he can’t deliver. Bernie will swing for the fences, but he will strike out. I will hit singles that keep the progressive rally (that Barack Obama started) going.
The most vivid illustration, of course, is on the health-care issue. Sanders advocates a change from the current complicated, mixed system to the relatively simple but radical idea of a single-payer system that would guarantee health care for everyone — “as a right” (as he always says) — at government expense, paid for by progressive taxation.
Clinton considers that too radical and not “achievable.” She advocates several smaller changes to expand and plug holes in the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) so that we would creep ever-closer to the ultimate liberal dream of an America in which everyone has access to affordable health care.
She certainly may be right about that. Before the advent of the current Era of No Compromise, that argument would have been quite persuasive. There is a legitimate question about whether it applies as well now.
Pretty much every Republican in Congress is committed to repealing the Affordable Care Act and would have long since done so if not for President Obama’s vetoes. Is there reason to believe that on the next round there will be Republicans open to supporting an expansion of Obamacare? I know of no reason to think so.
Is it reasonable to think that, in 2016, Democrats will win the White House and control of both houses of Congress so they can pass the Clinton-favored expansions of Obamacare without any Republican votes? It is certainly considered possible that the Democrats will win the White House and take back a small majority (but not a filibuster-proof majority) in the Senate, but I know of no one who believes a Democratic takeover of the House is possible.
It is also possible that Republicans will maintain control of both houses of Congress, which is why I have argued that “the top priority for any voter with a liberal Democratic bone in his body should be to retain Democratic control of the veto pen.”
I feel confident that both Clinton and Sanders would use the veto pen, if necessary, to prevent the repeal of Obamacare. The next question is which of them is more likely to win. The strong conventional wisdom is that Clinton is the more electable one. I am agnostic on this.
Clinton has at times implied, but not explicitly stated, that if Sanders was president, he would allow the repeal of Obamacare because he prefers single-payer, and that would be a disaster for those who have gained health insurance.
But that’s crazy. And she implies it only obliquely now, as you’ll see in the remarks below, when she says that she wants to “defend Obamacare,” adding: “We’re not gonna plunge this country into some contentious national debate where we’d have to go from zero percent to 100 percent.”
There’s a problem here, to the degree that she seems to imply that Sanders would sign a bill repealing Obamacare (for which, by the way, he voted) if the legislation did not include a replacement program that was closer to his dream of single-payer. I note that she stops short of ever saying that explicitly, but it’s implied in statements like “we’d have to go from zero percent to 100 percent,” and several other things that she says regularly.
There may be some things that can be done to expand the reach of Obamacare with executive action, as Clinton has sometimes implied, although if that’s so it isn’t clear to me why Obama hasn’t already done them.
In truth, it’s likely that if either Clinton or Sanders is the next president, Obamacare will neither be repealed nor expanded much and that next steps will await the result of future elections.
With that in mind, and with apologies in advance for any small errors in transcription, here is an extended excerpt from the closing moments of Clinton’s St. Paul speech, which I hope will be somewhat decoded by the context above.
It begins with a discussion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), for which Clinton has long claimed a share of credit, although her role was mostly behind the scenes because she was first lady at the time (1997) it passed. Here’s the excerpt of Clinton’s St. Paul speech:
I said look, we gotta figure out how to make progress. As much as possible. So I got to work, with Democrats and Republicans, to find common ground. To provide health care to the most vulnerable among us, our children. We were able to pass the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which now is a lifeline for eight million kids across America.
I never gave up on the dream of universal health care in America, not for a second. And eight million kids, as great as it was, wasn’t everything we wanted. But It was real. It was achievable. It made a profound difference. And I couldn’t bear the thought that we would leave children without health care even a single day longer than we had to.
That’s why I was thrilled when President Obama passed and signed into law the Affordable Care Act. That has been a goal of the Democratic Party since Harry Truman. And it’s helping so many people right now.
We have 90 percent coverage. Ten percent short of universal coverage. No more denials for preexisting conditions. Young people up to the age of 26 can be on their parents’ policies. Women no longer pay more for our insurance than men. And no more lifetime limits.
So yes, I’m gonna defend it. I know how hard it was to accomplish. I want to do everything I can to improve it. Get the costs down. Make sure we get to 100 percent coverage. And rein in drug prices. I want to go right at the drug companies. Requiring them to negotiate lower prices with Medicare and going after predatory pricing, which we have seen in the last months results in price increases of four, 5,000 percent, overnight.
I learned from my family and my faith to try to do as much good as you can, for as long as you can, for as many people as you can. When you see people hurting, maybe unjustly, and you think you can help them, you’ve got to do it. Especially when you’re someone who’s had blessings. Yes, who’s been knocked down but has been able to get back up.
That’s why I say with all my heart: We’re gonna build on the Affordable Care Act. We’re not gonna start over. We’re not plunging this country into some contentious national debate where we’d have to go from zero percent to a hundred percent. We’re going to take on those drug companies. We’re going to take on those costs. And we are finally going to achieve universal coverage.
So yes, we’re gonna do all of that. Because so many people and families depend on us doing that. That is the path forward. Not a divisive debate about the shape of what could be done, a whole system, that will stop us in our tracks, create gridlock and not move us forward.
Here’s my promise to all of you: I will work harder than anyone to actually make changes that improve lives. Together we will build on the progress we’ve made under President Obama, to break down all the barriers that hold America back…
So yes, I will build upon the progress that’s been made. Because I am a progressive who actually likes to make progress.