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Gradualism, Single-Payer, and the Debate We’re Not Having

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One of the things that I find truly frustrating about the way that the 2016 Democratic primaries have gone is that, while most of the attention and energy has gone to debating the virtues and identities of various groups of Bernie and Hillary voters and the ongoing attempt to turn fairly normal primary tactics into a grand moral crisis of something, we’re actually spending very little time talking about policy.

And we really need to be talking about policy, whether it’s whether Hillary’s actually always been on the left or the changes in the party platform that Bernie wants to fight for at the convention. Because while no one’s been paying attention, some lines are being drawn about what the Democratic Party is going to stand for.

The first place I noticed this was the fight over UMass economist Gerald Friedman’s report on Bernie Sanders’ ambitious proposals for Keynesian stimulus, where Democratic Council of Economic Advisers Chairs Alan Krueger, Austan Goulsbee, and Christina Romer rhetorically kneecapped a report suggesting that Sanders’ proposals would significantly boost the economy, all in the name of evidence-driven policy.

Now, this is a larger topic that deserves its own post, and one I’ll write when grading is over and I have a bit more time, but it was a noticeable attempt to boundary-police without being too public about why a policy that comes right out of the greatest hits of the Progressive Caucus was unacceptable to the party establishment. Are those ideas no longer acceptable within the Democratic Party? Were progressives just being humored because the larger Democratic Caucus needed their votes and knew that their bills were never going anywhere? I don’t know, because no one is actually talking about this – instead, we keep having oblique discussions about respectability politics.

The second place where this came up was with single-payer, which I discussed in a previous post. As I said in that post, there are some major problems with the current debate which make it very difficult to have the conversation that Scott Lemieux wants us to be having about how to build on the Affordable Care Act to get to a European-style health system.

Because when we look at an example like Colorado, signs are not very encouraging that the ACA is going to be used in that way, as opposed to being used as rhetorical cover for being opposed to further reform. It’s one thing to argue that gradualism is better than going for single-payer in one bite, but it’s another thing to openly campaign for the defeat of a single-payer initiative, to echo Republican attacks that single-payer will raise taxes and kill jobs, and to see Democratic consultants working for the vote no campaign.

It raises the question about how sincere some Democratic electeds are about sharing the goals of the progressive movement. After all, one of the few concessions made to the pro-single-payer camp in the Democratic Party during the debates over the ACA was the idea that, even if we couldn’t get single-payer this time, waivers would allow for experiments in single-payer on the state level. (Indeed, it was Bernie Sanders himself who wrote the provision that allows for single-payer waivers.) But if every time that progressives push to make use of that concession, whether it’s in Colorado or California, moderate Democrats (who were happy enough to be for single-payer when it wasn’t going to pass) walk sideways and torpedo the effort, people are going to start thinking they’ve been treated like Charlie Brown with the football.

And once again, this fight is happening without having a genuine debate about what the Democratic party’s goals should be and how to get there. Is single-payer just bad strategy or unacceptable on the merits? How are we going to build on the ACA to get to something better? At the very least, I’d like to see some genuine plans from pro-ACA folks about how we build from the status quo to a European-style system, because without that, no only isn’t there isn’t a basis for comparison, but there’s very little evidence that there’s intent to build in the first place.

But hell, who wants to talk about that? Let’s have another debate about superdelegates instead.

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