TO SIMPLIFY just a bit, the Democratic presidential primary has two competing ideological factions. The first is the brand of leftism, assertive and ascendant, championed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, which preaches ideas like protectionism, Medicare for All, a Green New Deal and decriminalising illegal border crossings. Arrayed against this is a squishy moderation, exemplified by Joe Biden, the former vice-president and current front-runner, and Kamala Harris, the senator from California. Both of them have attempted to please what they assume is an increasingly left-wing primary electorate, while not going so far as to alienate moderates. The results have been mixed.
Mr Biden began his campaign with a flip-flop on whether the federal government should pay for abortions (no, then yes, apparently), and Ms Harris flip-flop-flip-flopped on whether private health insurance should be abolished (no, yes, no, yes, apparently). Meanwhile the candidate perhaps most intellectually capable of challenging the party’s leftward creep, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, is gaining little traction. “My worry is that if we’re going down the road of Medicare for All and open borders…that could disqualify us with the American people going into the election in 2020,” he says.
Many in the field are fixated on Medicare for All, an idea for universal coverage pitched by Mr Sanders in which the government programme for the elderly becomes a single-payer for everyone’s care that is free at the point of use. Private insurance would no longer exist. “I think what we’re creating here is a solution in search of a problem,” says Mr Bennet, who notes that 175m Americans get health insurance through work and that the estimated tax needed for Mr Sanders’s idea—$33trn over ten years—is 70% of current federal revenues.
His competing plan, known as Medicare X and, unlike others, unveiled years, not months, before his presidential run, would try to achieve universal coverage by allowing people to buy health insurance from the government and by shoring up the insurance exchanges set up under the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. “And if the American people hate private insurance as much as Bernie thinks they do, we might end up with Medicare X displacing the private market. I suspect that’s not where the American people will be,” Mr Bennet adds.
Rather than being defined just in relief, Mr Bennet also differs in what he would spend money on. He has put two objectives at the centre of his economic pitch: investing in the 70% of American workers without a college degree and eroding childhood poverty. Both are big, progressive-sounding ideas—except that they are not much discussed by progressives.
Help for non-college-educated Americans, which he estimates would cost $500bn over ten years, would come in the form of wage subsidies, wage insurance and grants for training. By concentrating on work, Mr Bennet takes note of the perennial worry about welfare traps. His other big proposal, monthly cash transfers of $300 for each American child, has gone unnoticed beside flashier offers like a universal basic income (from Andrew Yang) or universal child care paid for by a wealth tax (from Ms Warren). “For 3% of the costs of Medicare for All, you could reduce childhood poverty in America by 40% and end $2-a-day childhood poverty in America,” says Mr Bennet. Because interventions to improve economic mobility are most effective early in life, “my starting point would be free preschool, not free college”.
Ms Warren has risen in the polls by creating the brand of a wonkish populist with a plan for everything (including one inquiring supporter’s love life). Mr Bennet’s ideas are a foil to these. They are just as rigorous and technocratic, but more rooted in pragmatism. Unfortunately, few voters have taken notice yet. After attending the first two debates, Mr Bennet failed to qualify for the television debate that will be held on September 12th, because of its more stringent polling and fundraising requirements. Still, Mr Bennet has pledged to continue his campaign until the first actual votes, which are not for five months.■