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Politics

Does her healthcare plan make Warren too liberal to win?

Essential Politics

Among her many proposals, an interviewer asked Sen. Elizabeth Warren, which three would she like to sign into law first?

Her anti-corruption plan, an end to the Senate filibuster and a wealth tax, the Massachusetts senator responded Thursday to Angela Rye, the liberal activist and CNN commentator.

Notice something missing?

Warren never wanted health care to dominate her campaign. After a week in which her detailed, sweeping Medicare for all plan has done exactly that, she’d still prefer to focus elsewhere.

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The issue threatens significant harm to her presidential ambitions. Her inability to escape it provides a clear lesson in the power that activists wield to box in candidates on issues they care about.

THE ACTIVIST TRAP

In 2018, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) gave clear instructions about healthcare to her candidates: Put Republicans on the defensive; focus on GOP efforts to wipe out protections for people with preexisting health problems; don’t get drawn into a debate over Medicare for all.

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That strategy worked: Democrats swept to a majority in the House, capturing 40 seats — one of the largest electoral waves since World War II — and healthcare played a major role.

That game plan remains available to the Democratic presidential candidates; the Trump administration has given them plenty of ammunition. For example, administration lawyers in July asked a federal court to declare the Affordable Care Act invalid — protections for preexisting conditions and all — and a decision in that case could come any day.

Instead, the candidates have largely done the opposite of what Pelosi recommended. They’ve occasionally attacked Trump over his efforts to take health coverage away from millions of potential voters, but they’ve more often gone after each other on their respective plans to expand coverage.

The path they’ve taken illustrates a key dynamic that shapes primary campaigns, often regardless of candidates’ wishes, said Patrick J. Egan, a political scientist at New York University who studies the way parties define themselves to voters through ownership of specific issues.

“Both parties’ coalitions include single-issue activists” who “propel policy agendas and major legislation that contributes substantially to the party’s brand,” Egan said in an email.

That can help a party cement its position because the public generally trusts each party more on the issues it “owns,” such as “terrorism and crime for the Republicans and the environment and health care for the Democrats,” he said.

But that can be a two-edged sword. Activists “wield an immense amount of influence in party primaries” because they can help marshal volunteers, grassroots donors and energy, Egan noted. At the same time, however, they push policies that are “often more extreme than the public wants” — huge tax cuts for the wealthy, in the case of Republicans, for example, and Medicare for all in the current Democratic debate.

What’s the evidence that Medicare for all is “more extreme” than voters want? Some of the best information comes from a new study of voters in four key electoral battlegrounds — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota — that the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Cook Political Report released Thursday.

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Trump carried three of those four states in 2016 and almost surely needs to win them again for reelection. Currently, he’s deeply unpopular in the states he won: 57% disapprove of him in Wisconsin; 58%, in Michigan; 61%, in Pennsylvania, the survey found. Across the four states, half of voters say they “strongly disapprove” of Trump.

The poll also found Democrats have an edge in enthusiasm in those states and that Trump is the biggest motivator for voters.

Another piece of good news for Democrats: Health care ranks with the economy as the most important issue for voters in all four states, and a majority of voters disapprove of how Trump has handled the issue.

The bad news? A majority of voters in those states also say that a national Medicare for all plan that would eliminate private insurance — the sort of plan Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders advocate — would be a “bad idea”: 56% in Pennsylvania, 58% in Michigan, 59% in Wisconsin, 60% in Minnesota.

Even among Democratic voters, Medicare for all is not a top priority: About 60% of Democrats in the four states call it a good idea, but that’s notably less than the support for proposals such as a path to citizenship for undocumented residents or a ban on assault weapons.

Warren’s a smart politician, and for months she steered as clear of the healthcare debate as she could. Even as her advocacy of highly specific policy ideas fueled her steady rise in the Democratic race, she demurred when pressed on the specifics of healthcare.

“No one’s raised it,” she told reporters early this year when asked why she hadn’t released a specific healthcare plan. The consistent message from Warren’s campaign was that Medicare for all was “Bernie’s issue,” not theirs.

But Warren’s desire to focus on her agenda conflicted with another imperative — securing her position as the favorite candidate of activist, liberal Democrats. While she and Sanders have avoided attacking each other, she’s also carefully avoided any situation in which Sanders could claim ground to her left on a top-tier issue.

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And on this issue, activists of the sort Egan described have demanded specifics. In Warren’s case, that’s meant unveiling a plan last week which tripled the amount of new federal spending she has called for — going from an already big $10 trillion over a decade to $30 trillion, an amount that would increase the federal budget by 50%.

That’s led to a weeklong panic attack among many in the Democratic establishment who fear their leading candidate has locked herself into a losing proposition.

Democratic strategists believe Trump remains highly vulnerable — many Republicans privately agree. Tuesday’s off-year elections showed continued warning signs for the GOP, especially in suburbs, as Eli Stokols wrote.

But a candidate too far to the left could give Trump the ability to persuade those suburban voters to stick with him, the worry goes.

There’s no way to know currently whether Warren really falls into that “too far left” category, as backers of Joe Biden and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg assert. What we can know is that Medicare for all gives her a big burden to defend in those key battleground states, where a majority of independents and about half the Democrats say they prefer “a candidate who works to make moderate changes” rather than one who “works to make bold changes.”

Issue advocates give parties the energy and enthusiasm they need to get voters up off their couches and out to the polls. That’s a big upside. They can also produce a major downside. Right now, that’s what a lot of Democrats are afraid of.

A KEY CHAPTER

In fewer than seven years in public office, Warren has established herself as one of the leading figures of the Democratic left. A key incident in her quick rise came in 2014, just two years after her election to the Senate, when she took down an Obama nominee to a high-level Treasury Department position.

Noah Bierman’s examination of how Warren used the fight over Antonio Weiss spotlights both her political strengths — her ability to turn a fight into a powerful symbol — and her weaknesses, including a reputation for ideological rigidity that continues to dog her.

BLOOMBERG AND THE DELUSIONS OF THE DONOR CLASS

Political strategists in both parties are used to wealthy donors badgering them with advice about how to run a campaign — typically, that advice is pretty bad.

Every once in a while, one of those donors goes one step further, deciding to prove his or her ideas are right by becoming the candidate. It almost always ends badly.

Thursday, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg let the world know that he’s once again flirting with entering the Democratic race. Democrats need to “ensure that Trump is defeated — but Mike is increasingly concerned that the current field of candidates is not well positioned to do that,” his longtime advisor Howard Wolfson said on Twitter.

Perhaps Warren’s healthcare plan helped tip Bloomberg back into the race — the expanded wealth tax she’s proposed to help pay for health care could personally cost him more than $10 billion over a four-year term.

Biden’s weaknesses as a candidate clearly have played a role too.

But while one can’t ever fully discount a candidate who can pour almost unlimited sums into a campaign, it’s hard to see signs of a big potential following for the former New York mayor.

Much of Biden’s support comes from African American voters; they’re not likely to flock to a candidate known for pushing “stop and frisk” policing while in office. And while a large chunk of Democratic voters remain undecided, only 4% said that they were dissatisfied with their existing choices in our latest USC-Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.

IMPEACHMENT PROBE GOES PUBLIC

Democrats plan to take their case public in televised hearings starting Wednesday. As Jennifer Haberkorn wrote, they’re still debating how broad a case to push. Meanwhile, our poll showed that 1 in 4 Americans remain uncertain about impeachment, providing a big potential audience which could be swayed.

In preparation for the hearings, the Democrats have begun releasing transcripts of the closed-door depositions the witnesses have given. As Eli Stokols wrote, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, testified that he had threatened to quit over a “nightmare” Trump demand.

Republicans, in the meantime, are weighing whether to add a vocal Trump supporter, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, to the House Intelligence Committee to help defend the president. As Sarah Wire wrote, GOP leaders insist that’s not a reflection of any lack of confidence in Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), but GOP members have been quietly noting how disengaged Nunes has been.

And in the Senate, GOP leaders are already thinking about how to turn a Senate impeachment trial to Trump’s advantage, Haberkorn and Melanie Mason wrote. A lengthy impeachment trial could lock up Warren, Sanders and other senators in Washington just as the final stretch of campaigning starts in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Republicans are also trying to keep attention focused on the whistleblower whose complaint first kicked off the scandal. They’ve mounted a campaign to try to force news organizations to publish the person’s name. One former CIA officer, Valerie Plame, has had some experience with what it’s like to be thrust suddenly into a political controversy. She has some advice for the whistleblower, Bierman wrote.

DEEP FAKES — A POSSIBLE CURE?

Ever since 2016, technology experts have warned that the next big frontier in disinformation could be highly convincing, but phony, videos of a candidate. Now, as Evan Halper reports, Silicon Valley may have a way to combat them, which a tech foundation plans to make available to news organizations and campaigns.

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration on our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.

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david.lauter@latimes.com


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