Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s unexpected victory has made it clear that the progressive movement activated by Bernie Sanders in 2016 is far from dead.
Policies like single-payer health care and a $15 minimum wage have become the rallying cries of ambitious Democratic politicians, and they increasingly find support among the general public. One poll commissioned last year found that even a plurality of self-identified Republicans now think that public colleges and universities should be tuition-free.
So it’s no surprise that all manner of Democratic politicians are now rushing to portray themselves as progressives.
In Michigan, businessperson Shri Thanedar has spent millions of dollars on television ads casting himself as “the most progressive Democrat running for governor,” and promising that he would bring single-payer health care to Michigan.
“Health care is not a privilege; it is our fundamental right. I will bring single-payer health care to Michigan,” Thanedar says in a TV commercial. “Agree? Vote for Shri.”
But there’s reason to be skeptical.
Over the last year, investigations by The Intercept have revealed many facts which cast doubt on Thanedar’s progressive branding. He donated thousands of dollars to Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign, he was spotted clapping and nodding approvingly at a Marco Rubio presidential rally, and several Michigan political consultants have claimed that Thanedar once consulted them about possibly running as a Republican.
Now, an interview with The Intercept reveals that Thanedar’s much touted single-payer health care “plan” appears to be nonexistent.
In a conversation I had with Thanedar this spring, the candidate made it clear that, if elected, he would push the federal government to establish a single-payer plan. But when asked what he would do if a national single-payer plan failed, Thanedar struggled to offer a viable, state-level solution.
When I pressed him on what a Michigan state single-payer system would look like, Thanedar’s answer reflected a troubling ignorance about the difference between federal and state programs. He replied: “I would expand the Medicare and allow people to buy into it.”
“But Medicare is a federal program,” I pointed out, which a governor has no authority to expand.
Moreover, even if a governor did have that authority, Medicare expansion is not the same as single-payer health care. The former would create a competitive, government-run insurance option that individuals could buy into, and which, in theory, would drive down private insurance prices. But a single-payer system entails a government-run health system that would cover everyone automatically, like Medicare does for seniors. Although he claimed to support a single-payer system, Thanedar was actually describing a public option.
“It is, it is,” he conceded when I pointed out the discrepancy.
“So what would you do in Michigan?” I once again followed up.
“Well you know, Massachusetts did it at the single state level, on which the Obamacare is based on. But my commitment is there I would get together experts and make it happen and work with that. It’s not an easy thing,” he replied. “It’s a complex thing. There are cost issues, there are a number of other issues that need to be dealt with. But I’m very convinced in the long run, it will save us money and it’s the right thing to do.”
I then asked him if there would still be private insurance under a statewide single-payer plan. Typically, private insurance is relegated to a supplemental role in a single-payer system.
“Again, I’m not prepared to, you know, give you a full, you know, this is all still things to be thought about,” he replied.
“And so you’re fine putting everybody in Michigan into one government plan and not having private insurance in Michigan?” I once again prodded. The answer to this question is politically relevant, since access to private insurance options has become a stalking horse for conservatives who oppose single-payer.
“I’m not saying that,” he insisted.
“But that’s what single-payer is though by definition, right?” I followed up, emphasizing the marginal role private insurance plays in a single-payer system.
“It is. It is,” he conceded.
Finally, Thanedar concluded that the system is complex, and explained that what he’s offering is to provide the leadership necessary to achieve a state single-payer system if a national plan doesn’t emerge “in a reasonable time.”
“I am for single payer. It’s a complex system. It needs to be all worked out. We need to get experts. We need to draft a proposal and some great number of details in it. And all of that needs leadership and a commitment by the leadership. And I’m not coming in with a solution to every complex problem Michigan has,” he said. “But I’m coming in with a commitment to provide leadership.”
Thanedar has since come out in support a plan to extend universal health care coverage to all Michiganders under 19 years old by strengthening the state’s “Healthy Kids” health care program, which currently provides support to certain pregnant women and children.
Listen to the full interview here:
When asked to comment on this piece, Thanedar again affirmed that he would do everything in his power to pass a national single-payer program, and explained that “if it cannot be done at the national level, I will work tirelessly to implement a single-payer healthcare system in Michigan with a goal to cover every Michigander.”
One of his opponents, former Detroit Public Health chief Abdul El-Sayed, is also running on establishing single-payer. But unlike Thanedar, El-Sayed has a detailed strategy for how to accomplish it. Last month, he released a plan to establish “Michicare,” which would levy payroll and business taxes to establish state-funded public coverage for all Michigan residents. El-Sayed is not shy about the fact that he would raise taxes in order to finance the system, but he estimates that the average Michigan family, earning an income of $48,432, would save around $5,000 a year in costs by switching to “Michicare” from their private health insurance provider.
Abdul El-Sayed was recently interviewed on the Intercepted podcast about his plan to create a single-payer health care system in Michigan, among other topics. Listen to the segment beginning at 24:55.
But despite having a more well-developed plan, El-Sayed’s middle-class background means he does not have the same resources to advertise his health care plan as does Thanedar, who, not without controversy, made a fortune in the chemical testing industry.
As a result, there’s a real risk that the public might be misled.
In a race where single-payer health care has become an important campaign issue, Thanedar’s vague, but well publicized, commitment to single-payer may undercut El-Sayed’s campaign, and derail the only detailed plan for a state-based single-payer program. The most recent polling on the Michigan race has Thanedar in a statistical dead heat with El-Sayed, with both men trailing former Senate Democratic leader Gretchen Whitmer by a considerable margin. The votes that Thanedar is pulling would theoretically be enough to put El-Sayed — who has hired a stable of Bernie Sanders alumni to run his campaign — in a competitive race with Whitmer.
But by coopting a progressive message and splitting the progressive vote, Thanedar has helped Whitmer, an establishment candidate, take a comfortable lead.
Whitmer is the daughter of former Blue Cross Blue Shield CEO Richard Whitmer. She’s the only Democratic candidate in the race who does not back single-payer, saying that it’s not “realistic” in Michigan at this time. BCBS Michigan lobbyists threw a fundraiser for Whitmer earlier this year. And she’s currently taking heat from an unidentified group who have paid for ads attacking her from accepting “big money” from insurance companies.
In this context, casting oneself as a progressive has become an important way to distinguish oneself from establishment politicians like Whitmer, and all the connotations of corporate corruption that come up with them — even if the label doesn’t fit.
Already, potential 2020 candidates for the Democratic nomination have taken postures designed to do just that. For instance, a number of senators have pledged to stop taking corporate political action committee money. But as several campaign finance experts explained to The Intercept, this move is mostly a “cheap gesture.” Many of these senators never took much corporate PAC money to begin with — instead, they raked in the bulk of their fundraising from large individual donors, including both corporate lobbyists and executives.
Given the increasing marketability of “progressivism,” it’s unlikely that Thanedar will be the last politician to don that mantle without adopting the policies to match. As long as progressive and populist policies are well-received by the general public, candidates for higher office have incentive to adopt sloganeering designed to appeal to this growing portion of the electorate. As a result, progressive voters may be increasingly unable to take politicians’ claims of “progressivism” at face value.