Pete Buttigieg Is Wrong on Health Care, Even Among His Own Staffers

Politics Features Pete Buttigieg
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Pete Buttigieg Is Wrong on Health Care, Even Among His Own Staffers

If there’s a “rising star” in the extremely crowded Democratic primary, that role is occupied at the moment by Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, IN. A former veteran who speaks multiple languages, Mayor Pete is one of those politicians who, at least on paper, makes strategists salivate. Nate Robinson put it best at Current Affairs:

Look at the number of boxes he checks. He’s from the Rust Belt so he’s authentic, but he went to Harvard so he’s not a rube, but he’s from a small city so he’s relatable, but he’s gay so he’s got coastal appeal, but he’s a veteran so his sexuality won’t alienate rural people. This is literally the level of political thinking that is involved in the hype around Buttigieg.

And yet as Robinson argued, and as I’ve argued, and as Paste’s Jacob Weindling has argued, this is a person who is shockingly light on details in his current campaign, and whose record indicates that he doesn’t promote or even support progressive policies.

The reason I’m writing this today is that a report came out Thursday morning showing that among Democratic primary candidates, Buttigieg is the only one not yet offering his staffers health care. From NBC News:

…as he staffs up a national campaign, the upstart Democratic presidential candidate isn’t providing health care coverage to any of his own campaign workers, an NBC News review of his campaign spending disclosures shows.

Instead, Buttigieg is providing a monthly stipend to workers to buy insurance on their own through the Obamacare exchanges, his campaign said, with plans to offer health care in the future.

The next line in the NBC story says it all:

The practice stands in contrast to the other leading presidential candidates this year, as Democrats have made a point of aligning their internal practices with the policies and values they are emphasizing on the campaign trail.

You mean, like…practice what you preach?

That should be standard operating procedure for every candidate, of course, and when it’s not, that lack of adherence to an alleged principle is Significant with a capital “S.” For Buttigieg, it’s a version of telling on himself—if universal health care was an important policy point for him, and if he believed in it for reasons that transcended political expediency, he wouldn’t be stiffing his own campaign workers.

Both Obama campaigns offered healthcare, as do all the current major primary campaigns—Bernie Sanders’ staff has even unionized. Buttigieg offers his workers a $400 a month stipend to buy their own healthcare, and plans to negotiate a group plan when he reaches 50 full-time staffers, but that’s not good enough for a campaign that—as NBC pointed out—tweeted out the words “we are a campaign that lives our values.”

Of course, it’s worth investigating what Buttigieg’s values are, exactly, when it comes to health care. As Roger Sollenberger pointed out yesterday, he (along with Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar, in all likelihood) supports a “universal access” plan that stops short of the Medicare for All plans supported by the likes of Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris. Buttigieg calls his plan “Medicare for All Who Want It,” and the governing idea is that it’s transitional—a compromise that could pave the way for a true Medicare for All system.

Of course, the idea that Republicans would support this type of “compromise” is completely far-fetched (it would be more liberal than Obamacare, and they didn’t support that even after Obama made huge concessions that included killing a public option), but let’s leave that aside for now. What Buttigieg hopes is that by giving people a Medicare for All option (“some version of Medicare,” in his words, “as a sort of public option”), eventually enough would choose it so that insurance companies would either drop their prices to compete or die trying, and eventually we’d have a system that is fundamentally “Medicare for All.”

There are a couple problems here. First, many doctors could still opt not to take the “some version of Medicare” insurance that, many people might choose cheaper (but less comprehensive) private insurance plans, and these and other factors could limit the pool of people who actually sign on for a public option. A smaller base of Medicare users means less negotiating power and fewer savings, and suddenly the program could be hamstrung before it ever gets off the ground. Meanwhile, you can bet that Republicans will be fighting to limit the program with everything they’ve got, at the behest of insurance and pharma companies, and spreading propaganda about government inefficiency while they’re at it.

Worst of all, if a compromise like this is attempted and fails, it will tar the name of Medicare for All and make it extremely unlikely that a true M4A program could pass for at least a generation.

In other words, while this looks like a “compromise” solution, it’s actually an incredible gamble, and for what? To win “moderate” support, or convince Senate Republicans to back the plan? The latter is never happening, and the former fundamentally misreads the mood of the public. In April, polls showed Americans supported a single-payer system by a 56% majority (38% were opposed). That doesn’t mean such a program would be easy to pass, since it requires a Senate Democratic majority and proponents would have to overcome the frustrating intransigence that mainstream media shows when attempting to understand the idea that yes, even with higher taxes, Medicare for All would save the average American money. But it’s a simple idea that promises vast benefits to people in this country, so as far as PR campaigns go, this one isn’t the hardest, a fact reflected by how prominent the concept has become since 2016. And Senate Republicans aren’t about to support a partial public option buy-in anyway, unless they believe they can use it to effectively kill the concept for good. Still, just like the ACA, Buttigieg’s plan starts from a place of concession. It even gives tacit credence to the deceptive Republican line: “But what if you like your private insurance?”

I don’t know whether Pete Buttigieg believes that his plan will actually be a pathway to Medicare for All, or if he actually doesn’t believe in the concept in the first place. But by dragging his feet on providing his staffers with health care—even when he should have known how the optics would look—he raises serious questions about his priorities. Medicare for All often feels like a dream, and some dreams feel unrealistic, but it’s become a whole lot more tangible in the last four years. As the ACA has proved, you can’t reach that destination piecemeal, and even if you could, you can’t start by giving up ground before negotiations even begin. If Mayor Pete wanted Medicare for All in America, he would make it a policy priority instead of promoting a watered-down version that’s just as likely to sabotage the entire concept. If it mattered to him, his workers would already be covered.

He hasn’t, they aren’t, and that speaks volumes.