“They’re going to hurt your Social Security so badly, and they’re killing you on Medicare. Just remember that,” President Trump declared at a recent rally in Montana (you know, the one with the plaid shirt guy). “I’m going to protect your Social Security. We’re going to take care of your Social Security… They’re going to end up taking it away from you, and you won’t even know what happened.”
It’s not a new line of attack. Last month, in Indiana, Trump declared: “They want to raid Medicare to pay for socialism.”
“They,” of course, are Democrats. And in a year when they should be coasting to midterm electoral success, “they” have invited this line of attack.
Case in point: Barack Obama basically endorsed “Medicare for All” on Friday, calling it one of the “good new ideas” that Democrats are running on. (It’s actually a “bad old idea,” but like the “Christian Right” and the “Holy Roman Empire,” the veracity of such designations is rarely challenged on the spot.)
Democrats, including Obama, believe they have the wind at their backs. But do they? Depending on the wording, it can poll very well. But polls don’t exist in a vacuum. They are more akin to snapshots that do not tell us how ideas and policies are going to withstand criticisms.
As Bill Scher pointed out in Politico magazine, “…upon hearing the startling news that single-payer might ‘give the government too much control over health care,’ support plummets to 40 percent. The revelation that the plan would ‘require many Americans to pay more in taxes’ did the same. Maybe, just maybe, a Republican will give these talking points a try.” Trump must read Scher.
Democrats should be nervous that Trump is going to blunt their momentum by poking single-payer’s soft underbelly. If you don’t think this is possible, (a) look what happened to Democrats electorally during the Obamacare debate—when voters warned: “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” and (b) consider that elements of Medicare may have to be cut to make the numbers add up. Medicare for All would require massive changes, which could weaken current coverage, including reductions to some government payments.
As liberal health care policy expert Jonathan Cohn acknowledges at HuffPost, “When it comes to Medicare specifically, it’s true that proponents of single-payer envision the federal government ratcheting down payments for medical services and supplies, including everything from physician fees to drugs. If the cuts get too deep―and that’s a huge if―they could lead to shortages, waiting lists and facility closures.”
Now, as a free-market conservative, I could go on and on about why Medicare for All is a bad policy idea. (It consolidates power with the government, it constricts choice and competition in the insurance markets, etc.) That’s not likely to persuade Democrats hungry for an issue that galvanizes their progressive base. Substance aside, though, single-payer carries significant political risk that Democrats don't need when so much else is going their way.
At the very least, Democrats are putting themselves in a risky position. Contrast Trump’s potential to put Democrats on defense with the way West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin has gone on the offense, accusing his Republican challenger of wanting to roll back protections for preexisting conditions.
But put aside the electoral risks. What happens when Democrats take the House and then are expected to achieve this socialist dream?
Look, I know Trump is making your head explode by having the audacity to say that supporting Medicare for All is tantamount to destroying Medicare. Medicare for All polls better than single-payer, because Medicare is a more familiar (and popular) brand. It’s also a form of socialism, so it sticks in Democrats’ craw for Trump to use it as a cudgel against single-payer.
Likewise, it might be unsettling for free-market conservatives to see that Trump is embracing a socialist program. But if you’re worried that socialism is on the march, then Trump is actually being very savvy.
In this regard, Trump might be better at fighting socialism than a “normal” conservative Republican president would be. This is because he is not saddled with the burden of having a consistent or coherent worldview. Absent this baggage, Trump is free to either weaponize or abandon whatever arguments are convenient.
Just as FDR gave the American economy a dose of socialism to vaccinate it from a full-blown epidemic, Donald Trump appears to be using a big government program as a shield to stop an even bigger government program. It just might work—and the Democrats have waltzed right into it. If Democrats are seen as the party of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez instead of the party of Joe Manchin, it could make for one disappointing night come November.