Senator Warren Hits a Speed Bump

Some people are better at numbers than others. Indeed, some folks are intimidated by complicated calculations and prefer to leave the calculus and trigonometry to engineering types; even a long column of figures is enough to give them the willies.

This may explain why it took so long for Democratic voters to catch on to the uncomfortable truth that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s numbers do not add up.

But with some tutorial assistance from fellow Democrats Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, who display a flair for the mathematical side of politics, it has become apparent that Warren’s “Medicare for All” plan will not provide Medicare for anybody.

That’s because of the stupendous cost — $20.5 trillion by her own ciphering — and the utter impracticality of covering it with a wealth tax, as she has lately admitted would be necessary. The no-premium, no cost-sharing, which is also promised, relies on what National Review editor Rich Lowry described as “a jerry-rigged financing program built on such outlandishly rosy assumptions about costs and revenues that even her journalistic cheerleaders have been skeptical.”

It took a while for the meaning of the big numbers to sink in, but judging from the latest polls, Americans have overcome their initial fear of so many zeroes in a row and come to the conclusion that the vaunted policy wonk from Harvard may also be better on verbal than math exercises.

In what is perhaps the most dramatic shift in the polling during this poll-stuffed campaign season, a Quinnipiac poll published on Tuesday pegged Warren at 14 points below where she was in October. A month ago, she led the Democrat pack in the same poll, but now Biden’s back on top and she’s sharing a crowded second place with Sanders and Buttigieg. Other polls, including Economist/YouGov and RealClearPolitics also traced a significant decline, if not quite so dramatic.

Americans have picked up on the verbal side of “Medicare for All” as well. A plan that eliminates the option of private health insurance, as hers would do, eventually makes even many left-leaning Democrats squirm.

Until recently, Warren was quite parsimonious with the details of her plan. But recent prodding has forced her to open up. Buttigieg told CNN that Warren has been “more specific and forthcoming about the number of selfies she’s taken than about how this plan is going to be funded.”

In response, she did not come out with a robust defense of the plan on which she has been building so much of her campaign. Instead, after two weeks of withering criticism she backed down considerably.

She offered a “transition plan” for the first 100 days of her administration that would cover children and people with lower incomes for free, while allowing others to exercise their still-existing freedom of choice as to whether to join, a la moderates Biden and Buttigieg.

The real deal that she’s been running on until now, which ends private health options, a la socialist Bernie Sanders, would be introduced by the end of the third year of her presidency, she says.

Neither phase would be simple to achieve. As an analysis in Vox points out, the transition phase requires 50 or so Senate Democrats to agree on a health-care plan in early 2021 and the second phase needs a Senate supermajority to approve single-payer health care (or an end to the Senate filibuster). It is fair to question the seriousness of a program that relies on the never-never land of supermajorities.

It brings to mind what President John F. Kennedy used to tell liberal supporters anxious about his sluggishness on civil rights: that it was on the list of all the good things he would do once re-elected in 1964 (after he was assassinated, it was Lyndon Johnson who masterminded passage of the landmark civil rights bill). The canny Kennedy made such disclosures only in private, whereas Warren has written it into her public platform.

Of course, it’s much too early to write off Senator Warren’s candidacy. She’s a determined person with a still-enthusiastic core following. She didn’t come all the way from Massachusetts to Iowa to be stymied by a little flak from competitors. For her, this is just a speed bump on the way to the White House.

The “transition plan” comeback was either a remarkable feat of impromptu policy making or a scheme that had been sitting in the files all along. Either way, it demonstrates the tenacity and resilience of this presidential aspirant. Nobody’s pushover.

But for the rest of us, it is a useful reminder that before we give our support to any candidate or program, no matter how appealing they may seem, it pays to examine the details and add up the numbers.