The Morning Dispatch: Make-Believe Medicare Math

Plus: The state of the Democratic race and the impeachment week ahead.

Happy Monday morning! We hope you’re reading this newsletter while basking in all that extra morning sunlight we traded for this weekend, because for the next three months you’ll need a flashlight to eat dinner.

Quick Hits: What You Need to Know

  • The economy added 128,000 jobs in October, driving the S&P 500 to all-time highs. Manufacturing activity, however, contracted for the third straight month.

  • Beto O’Rourke dropped out of the 2020 Democratic presidential race, telling supporters his “campaign does not have the means to move forward successfully.”

  • The California wildfires that have raged for days and forced mass evacuations are largely under control, per the Ventura County Fire Department.

Elizabeth Warren’s Medicare-for-All Rube Goldberg Machine

The first time Elizabeth Warren refused to answer a debate question about whether she would raise taxes on the middle class to pay for her Medicare-for-All plan, it seemed like a momentary oddity. As she kept dodging the question in debate after debate, it became a real difficulty for her campaign.

Warren finally rolled out her detailed Medicare-for-All policy proposal on Friday. You can’t fault her for inconsistency. The apparent organizing question of Warren’s Medicare-for-All plan is not “What is the most just and equitable way to lay out our national health care system?” Rather, it seems to be: “What will allow Elizabeth Warren to keep claiming that the middle class won’t pay more in taxes under Medicare-for-All?”

The result is a policy Rube Goldberg machine, in which the Warren brain trust pilfers from every conceivable pot of cash just to make the numbers seem halfway plausible: New corporate taxes, wealth taxes, investment taxes, cuts to military spending, and a barrel of cheerful promises about eliminating IRS loopholes to cut down on tax avoidance.

Warren’s proposal makes the math work by making fantastical assumptions about how much new revenue the government is likely to bring in and by dramatically underestimating how much implementing Medicare-for-All will cost. Her campaign puts the 10-year price tag at $20.5 trillion; a whole slew of independent projections, meanwhile, estimate a 10-year cost of no less than $31 trillion.

Oh, and it also tosses in comprehensive immigration reform as another revenue-generating measure. Sure, why not?

Pie in the Sky

The traditional Democratic argument for single-payer health insurance has been straightforward: The insurance industry’s primary interest is not the welfare of its customers, but the financial interest of its shareholders. If the government were to get rid of the profiteering leeches, it would create a much leaner, more efficient system all while providing universal health care. Since people would be paying the government rather than private companies, taxes would of course go up. But the costs would be shouldered much more heavily by those better able to afford them, and Americans would be getting far more bang for their buck.

There are plenty of problems with this argument, but set those aside for now. Even by single-payer standards, Warren’s proposal is absurd. With a straight face, Warren insists that private health care costs for the entire middle class (and for the poor, for that matter) will simply vanish—and that they won’t be asked to pay a cent in new taxes to make up the difference. “It doesn’t raise taxes on anybody but billionaires,” Warren said in Iowa this weekend. “And you know what? The billionaires can afford it.”  

Warren and her fellow true-blue progressives are proposing the most dramatic overhaul of the U.S. economy in our nation’s history. This means that the onus is on them to sell Medicare-for-All to the people. At a minimum, Warren has a responsibility to the voters to show her work—to explain exactly how everyone will be better off, to show how the math makes sense and how the plan anticipates and navigates drawbacks of the change.

Instead, Warren has consistently shown us that she believes the opposite to be true. It isn’t her job to sell Medicare-for-All to the people—it’s the people’s job to wise up and get on board because Elizabeth Warren says they should. At the Democratic debates, Warren has repeatedly scoffed off the idea that any reasonable person could object to her plan. She has dismissed serious questions about how her plan will be paid for as “Republican talking points.” And this weekend, she had no good answers about the futures of the millions of Americans currently employed by the health insurance industry, suggesting casually that they could “work in other parts of insurance—in life insurance, in auto insurance, in car insurance.” Other parts of insurance? Sounds like someone who doesn’t have a plan.

Elizabeth Warren wants to convince Americans that they should trust her to dramatically reshape the U.S. economy. It’s hard to see how policy fantasies like this help her make that sell.

The Democratic Horserace

The first several months of the Democratic 2020 campaign have been remarkably cordial by political standards—save Kamala Harris’ body blow on Joe Biden and Tulsi Gabbard’s body blow on Kamala Harris. We are just 91 days from the first votes being cast in Iowa, and congeniality is beginning to wear thin. In just the last few weeks, we’ve seen:

  • Elizabeth Warren tell Joe Biden he’s “running in the wrong presidential primary” and “repeating Republican talking points”

  • Joe Biden’s team remind everyone Elizabeth Warren was a Republican until age 47

  • Pete Buttigieg declare the race is down to just him and Elizabeth Warren (he later walked these comments back, but we at The Dispatch will not stand for this Wayne Messam erasure!

  • Kamala Harris call Pete Buttigieg “naive”

  • Amy Klobuchar refer to Elizabeth Warren’s health care plan as a “pipe dream” and

  • Andrew Yang tweet that he likes to ride his bicycle. 

So what’s driving all these spats between the candidates? Let’s break down some of the key matchups that’ll be worth keeping an eye on over the next eight Scaramuccis (is that still funny?).

Joe Biden vs. the clock: For all the doom and gloom you may be reading about the Biden campaign—his age is beginning to show, he’s going to lose Iowa, his rivals are crushing his fundraising numbers—the former vice president remains a frontrunner in public polling. His campaign has had him running from ahead since the outset, like a football team nursing a 10-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. By limiting his exposure and shying away from excessive confrontation with other candidates, his team had hoped to minimize risk and simply run out the clock. But recent surges from rivals—and a certain Ukraine saga, you might have heard of it—have forced Biden to deviate from the plan, going back on offense to put a few more points on the board. 

In recent weeks, he’s appeared on 60 Minutes and MSNBC, he’s repeatedly attacked Elizabeth Warren’s credibility, and he’s begun accepting help from an outside super PAC. The primary map looks tricky: Biden is closer to fourth than first in Iowa, and he’s losing ground to Warren and Sanders in New Hampshire. The campaign is treating South Carolina—which votes fourth and where Biden currently holds nearly a 20-point lead—as its firewall. But can a former vice president and longtime frontrunner, with massive name-ID, really afford to lose Iowa and New Hampshire?

Relative to his opponents, the former vice president is lacking in both money and progressive bona fides. But as New York Times political reporter Astead Wesley noted over the weekend, the more moderate Biden remains the only candidate who has demonstrated enough support in black communities to win. As Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders’ 2016 battle proved, you can’t win the nomination with hyper-liberal white voters alone. Don’t count out ole’ Joe just yet.

Elizabeth Warren vs. Pete Buttigieg/Bernie Sanders: If you’ve been following the 2020 campaign exclusively through cable news, you’d be excused for thinking Elizabeth Warren had this thing in the bag. As some would tell it, she has a plan for everything, a clapback for everyone, and is surging past her rivals, unlikely to look back. She even seemed to secure the highly coveted and influential Saturday Night Live endorsement this past weekend (here’s hoping sarcasm can be transmitted via newsletter). The result of all that attention is that she’s getting her first real taste of frontrunner status, and as a result, has had to fend off increasing attacks from her Democratic rivals.

On her right, Mayor Pete seems to finally be having His Moment™ after tacking slightly to the center in the most recent debate and placing himself in sharper contrast with the junior senator from Massachusetts. Despite tweeting in favor of Medicare-for-All in February 2018 (the term’s actual meaning was much hazier back then), Buttigieg has been hammering Warren’s plan as expensive and implausible, after initially branding her evasive for not releasing the plan’s details at all. And it seems to be working: Mayor Pete is now nipping at Warren’s heels in Iowa, and just delivered by all accounts a riveting Liberty and Justice Gala speech that has drawn comparisons to another “young man with a funny name” back in 2007. If Warren is tied up in Washington for a lengthy impeachment trial, Buttigieg could very well pull within striking distance.

On her left, Warren must contend with a re-energized and reinvigorated Bernie Sanders who, while not running nearly as combative a campaign as Buttigieg, is starting to create some distance between himself and his closest ideological ally in the race. Late in the summer, Sanders’ campaign showed signs of stagnating, unable to expand beyond an insufficient base of supporters. But an early October heart attack, followed by a strong debate performance and high-profile endorsements from progressive superstars Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar have breathed new life into Bernie’s campaign.

The combination presents a difficult one-two punch for Warren. Move too far to the left—as it appears she might have done with the Medicare-for-All rollout—and she leaves her right flank open to attacks from Buttigieg and Biden. If she so much as hints at a relatively centrist proposal, she risks driving progressive voters back into Bernie’s outstretched arms.

Kamala Harris vs. relevance: For someone who declared herself “obviously a top-tier candidate” just a few months ago, Harris sure is doing a lot of cellar-dwelling. After delivering the “that little girl was me” line on busing that temporarily blindsided Vice President Biden, the freshman California senator and former prosecutor rapidly gained traction. But the boost was short lived, and Harris is now laying off staff and shuttering offices in New Hampshire to “go all-in on Iowa,” a state where she’s currently polling sixth. She’s in low single-digits in several recent national polls.

To be fair, Harris is far from the only candidate languishing. We haven’t even mentioned John Delaney, Julián Castro, Marianne Williamson, Michael Bennet, Steve Bullock, or Joe Sestak in this segment, and very likely The Dispatch’s entire existence. But relative to expectations, perhaps only Beto, peace be upon him, has fallen flatter.

The Week Ahead: Impeachment

Congress may be on recess this week, but House Democrats—who, you’ll recall from Friday’s Morning Dispatch, are in a bit of a time crunch—are trying to press forward with impeachment proceedings nonetheless. This week, however, is looking like a stalemate: The White House has instructed four current officials who were slated to appear Monday and Tuesday—including National Security Council lawyers and an aide to acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney—not to testify and unlike some of their predecessors, they appear likely to comply with those orders.

One big remaining question mark: whether we’ll hear this week from former National Security Adviser John Bolton. Bolton told the relevant committees last week that he was unwilling to testify voluntarily, and his lawyer effectively asked them to subpoena him instead. But whether that means Bolton is privately eager to dish is far from clear.

Outside the SCIF, the defenses of the president are becoming more confused. Not surprisingly, after the sixth witness to confirm the existence of a quid pro quo, many of Trump’s defenders on Capitol Hill are moving from “no quid pro quo” to “yes, there was a quid pro quo, and it was a good thing.” But Trump isn’t happy with what he sees as strategic retreat:

Worth Your Time

  • A moral grandstander is “a person who frequently uses public discussion of morality and politics to impress others with their moral qualities.” Sound like anyone you know? A new study published in PLOS One finds such people are more prone to political and moral conflict in their daily lives. Read a synopsis here.

  • The New York Times conducted an interactive analysis of Donald Trump’s tweets since taking office in January 2017, and found, among other things, that he has routinely engaged with conspiracy theorists on the platform and praised himself more than 2,000 times. “President Trump is tweeting more than ever. The second week of October was his busiest, with 271 tweets.”

  • On a recent trip to Chicago, Allie Conti was deprived of the room she paid for, and she stumbled into an Airbnb scam that has afflicted hundreds of travelers nationwide. She wrote about it for Vice here, and now the FBI is on the case.

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • The Morning Dispatch/G-File closed circuit is nearly complete, with Jonah taking Friday’s reporting on House GOP retirements and running with it in his most recent “news”letter. The G-File also touches on impeachment, show trials (or the lack thereof), the 50th anniversary of Nixon’s “Silent Majority” speech, and, of course, Conan the hero dog. Give it a read here.

  • We did not know Steve Bannon was a Morning Dispatch reader, but we’re glad he’s enjoying our work!

Let Us Know

Wayne Messam, mayor of Miramar, Florida, is somehow still running for president despite raising all of $5 for his campaign in the third quarter of this year. Who gave him that $5?

  • An FEC official who felt bad seeing a zero on the reporting form

  • His three children pooled it together

  • Pete Buttigieg, mayor of a city smaller than Miramar, Florida

  • Nobody, was a rounding error

Reporting by Declan Garvey and Andrew Egger.