The Washington Post

Socialism is in retreat in the Democratic Party


Remember Medicare-for-all? Just a few years ago, it was the Democrats’ hottest idea. Now it has nearly fallen out of public discussion. Socialism, which was noisily advancing in the Democratic Party, is silently beating a retreat. A new dawn for socialism had appeared to begin with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s strong insurgent campaign for the Democratic presidenti­al nomination in 2016. Its centerpiec­e proposal was to replace all private health insurance with a government-run program. By 2018, 124 House Democrats, more than three-fifths of all of them, were cosponsori­ng the Medicare-for-all bill.

The 2018 elections saw the rise of a slew of self-proclaimed socialists. The most mediagenic of them, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez, beat a longtime incumbent Democrat in New York. A moderate former Democrat from yesteryear criticized her as she took office. “New party, who dis?” was her response. By the time Democrats began their presidenti­al debates in 2019, Medicare-for-all was the leading subject, with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and then-sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) joining Sanders in advancing variants of it. Writers on the left celebrated what they called “a progressiv­e policy arms race” led by Warren and Sanders.

But then Joe Biden, who opposed the proposal, won the nomination. His spoonful of sugar for the advocates was a promise to take several large steps toward Medicare-for-all. He said he would create a new “public option” to let working-age Americans above the poverty level get insurance coverage from the federal government. He also promised to lower the eligibilit­y age for Medicare from 65 to 60 and to have it cover dental and vision care.

Once in office, though, Biden has walked away from these initiative­s. His new budget proposal includes no public option and doesn’t let 60-yearolds into Medicare, perhaps because these policies would have been costly and disrupted many people’s current health-care arrangemen­ts. The White House released accompanyi­ng verbiage about working with Congress to strengthen dental and vision benefits, but the budget reserves no money for it.

The dashing of progressiv­e hopes on health care should put in perspectiv­e the much-discussed shift of the Democratic Party, and the country as a whole, to the left.

Today’s Democrats are indeed more left-wing than their forebears in many ways. Biden’s budget foresees record levels of federal spending and debt. He has signaled more hostility to bipartisan entitlemen­t reform than the two previous Democratic presidents did. And Republican­s are eager to highlight the party’s socialist turn, if only to denounce it.

But it turns out the party’s left wing has spent much of the past few years fooling itself about its ascendancy. Sanders did well in the 2016 primary because he was running against Hillary Clinton. He fizzled in 2020, when she wasn’t in the race as a foil. Ocasio- Cortez and her closest allies in the House are in liberal districts where, as then-house Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D- Calif.) remarked a few years ago, “a glass of water” with a D next to its name could win an election. They represent the voters Democrats already have, not the ones they need to win.

Which helps explain why Medicare-for-all has languished. When Democrats had a House majority, from 2019 through the start of this year, it was because they prevailed in moderate districts. The number of co-sponsors for the legislatio­n actually dropped a little.

A major reason moderates shunned the bill: It requires raising taxes on the middle class, as Sanders readily admits. (He says the middle class will save more on medical bills than they pay in taxes.) Biden, like the other two Democrats who have been president in the past 40 years, has ruled that out.

And that constraint on Democratic ambitions is getting tighter. In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed a bill raising taxes on couples making more than $140,000: about $300,000 in today’s money. Biden has an even more expansive definition of the middle class: He says only couples making more than $450,000 should pay higher tax rates.

If they’re willing to raise taxes only on a small slice of the population, Democrats might not be able to keep financing the government we have. They certainly cannot finance a European-style social democracy.

Fans of Medicare-for-all can, however, take comfort that they will have one champion in the 2024 presidenti­al race: Marianne Williamson.

The dashing of progressiv­e hopes on health care should put in perspectiv­e the much-discussed shift of the Democratic Party, and the country as a whole, to the left.

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