Doomed To Repeat It: Why the Democratic Party Should Be Wary of Litmus Tests
Perhaps no single issue illustrates the shifting policy base of the Democratic party than Medicare for All. Just four years ago, the idea of transitioning the U.S. to a single-payer healthcare system was only largely championed by Senator Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Socialists of America, and a handful of Progressive Caucus members in the House. That all changed with Sanders’ bid for President. Running with Medicare for All as one of his main planks, Sanders lost the nomination, but along the way he demonstrated the appeal of ambitious policy ideas to the parties base. Today, Medicare for All is quickly turning into a staple of the Democratic platform, embraced by much of the party’s base, a third of the Senate Democratic caucus, and a majority of Democratic presidential hopefuls. There are signs, however, that Medicare for All may be moving beyond just a Democratic policy staple and into purity test territory. This was on full display last month when Sen. Kamala Harris, a cosponsor of Sanders’ Medicare for All bill in the Senate and a presidential candidate, came under fire from progressives (including the DSA and other activists) for expressing openness to supporting healthcare plans short of a full-on single-payer system. Also, last month Sen. Sherrod Brown, a longtime progressive Senator from Ohio (he voted against both the Defense of Marriage Act and the Iraq War) and potential presidential candidate, came under attack from progressives for supporting an incremental Medicare for All bill rather than solely single-payer. The purpose of this article is not to make a judgment of single-payer as a good policy idea or a bad one; rather, it is to warn the Democratic party of the danger of using bold policy proposals as a political litmus test, using history, always a good teacher, as a guide.
There is a useful, almost uncanny, historical parallel to today’s situation. In 2011, Republicans, who had just recaptured the majority in the House but did not hold the presidency or the Senate, campaigned in large part on healthcare, the same issue that was so crucial to Democrats retaking the House last fall. Within the new Republican majority was an ascendant radical wing, the Tea Party, which had toppled incumbent lawmakers from their own party by running on a bold healthcare proposal to completely repeal and replace Obamacare. Last fall, the ascendant progressive wing of the Democratic party, driven largely by the Democratic Socialists of America and the Justice Democrats, took out incumbent lawmakers from their own party running on a bold healthcare proposal to completely repeal the country’s current health care system and replace it with Medicare for All. Now that Democrats control the House, they should take heed of what happened next in 2011. Through a combination of swaying the party base and threatening primary challenges to incumbent lawmakers, the issue of repealing and replacing Obamacare became a staple in the Republican primaries in 2012, eventually producing a nominee, Mitt Romney, who was forced to run on repealing a healthcare plan that was based on one he had created as Governor of Massachusetts. Romney lost, of course, to an incumbent president who pledged to uphold and maintain his signature healthcare law. President Trump has already shown a similar instinct, attacking Democratic support of Medicare for All as socialist. By the time Republicans finally regained control of all of the levers of power in D.C., Obamacare repeal was a core value of the party base. By then, the idea of repeal was highly unpopular to the general public, and congressional leaders found themselves trapped between a contingent of party base strongly in favor of a single policy idea and the wishes of incumbents who were on the ballot in the next election. We all know how this ended: Republicans spent more than a year of precious legislative time trying to pass their healthcare proposal into law, only to have their efforts killed by moderates in their own party. This didn’t keep the opposition from running on healthcare and attacking Republican incumbents for their vote in favor of repeal. That argument was lethal in the general election, as Democrats took out thirty Republican incumbents on their way to retaking the House majority.
So what can Democrats learn from the Republican fiasco over repealing Obamacare? Policy debate, especially over a key issue like healthcare, is a critical part of the political process. But when a political party marries itself entirely to a single extreme policy position to the exclusion of all other ideas, using it as a purity test in primaries, it runs an enormous risk of leaving itself open to attacks in presidential and congressional elections and of boxing itself in when it finally retakes power. As the Democratic Party decides if Medicare for All should be a benchmark of what is considered a true Democrat, they would do well to remember the oldest, most cliche, but truest maxim in politics: those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Eric Scheuch is an Op-Ed writer for the review and a Sophomore in Columbia College studying Political Science and Sustainable Development. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.