Focus on politics and popularity over efficiency.
Democrats have spent the past several months planning future policies once they have regained control of the presidency and Congress. Candidates for president have extensively debated plans for new environmental regulations and taxes on the wealthy. They have also discussed how to reform the private health insurance market. Some candidates, such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, have embraced both Medicare for All and a plan to ban private insurance. These candidates argue that private insurance companies are wasteful and place an undue burden on families and the American economy. When announcing her plan, Warren argued that private insurance “leaves families with rising premiums, rising copays and fighting with insurance companies to try to get the health care that their doctors say that they and their children need.”
It is heartening to hear liberal candidates be bold and creative with their new policy proposals. They have eschewed the caution of earlier candidates in favor of attempting to change the nature of the American economy. But some commentators believe that proposals like the banning of private insurance go too far against the grain of public opinion. For instance, a majority of Americans support expansion of Medicare, but only 10% also want to ban private insurance. As Jordan Weissmann of Slate noted back in January, “Americans want access to government insurance, but they don’t want to be forced to use it — people prefer optionality.”
Progressive legislation is often crafted with efficiency in mind. Lawmakers want to spend as little money as possible and have that money do as much work as possible. They are, in a post-Walter Mondale world, thrifty with the federal purse strings. As a result, these men and women want to eliminate any possible inefficiencies. They sometimes prioritize this efficiency over political expediency.
The clearest examples of this phenomena come from the Barack Obama administration. Two policies, the stimulus bill in 2009 and the Affordable Care Act in 2010, highlight the prioritization of efficiency. In the stimulus bill, the administration focused on spending and tax cuts, like the payroll tax cut, that they believed would be the most beneficial to the economy. They did not prioritize spending programs that would be particularly obvious to the American people, such as the direct “checks in the mail” that characterized a stimulus bill under the George W. Bush administration. With fewer tangible results, Americans were more susceptible to the conservative media’s charges that the bill was wasteful and socialist. The stimulus bill never gained Obama the support that it should have for boosting the American economy out of the Great Recession.
The Affordable Care Act was beset by a similar tendency. Obama’s promise of allowing people to keep health care plans they liked was not an efficient use of taxpayer dollars or regulations, so it was not viewed as a priority and was eventually broken. A public, broken promise that took away something people liked was much more politically damaging than saving money on health care legislation. Instead of focusing on politics, Obama ended up focusing on efficiency, and it caused him problems throughout the rest of his administration.
The next Democratic president has to take these examples to heart when they are considering significant progressive legislation. These politicians should want their new laws to survive the inevitable next Republican administration, and the only way they will be able to withstand the conservative onslaught is if they are crafted to be popular. Instead of banning private insurance, Democrats should retain a “private option” to supplement their Medicare for All programs. They should eschew bans and mandates in favor of additional options, whether the law under consideration pertains to retirement reform or the Green New Deal. If they craft legislation in a careful, popular way, they may be able to match their liberal descendants in the 1930s and impose policies that will benefit the American people for decades to come.