Amid the huzzahs and high-fives for Kamala Harris’ star turn at Thursday night’s 2020 presidential debate, a sour note emerged: Harris, again, seemed to walk back her position on whether she supports the total elimination of the private health care insurance industry.
In the debate itself, the moderators asked the 10 candidates on stage to raise their hand if they supported the abolishing of the private health care market in favor of a government-run program – as outlined in Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All plan. Only two candidates – Sanders, obvi, and Harris – raised their hands.
Which seemed pretty cut and dry. But, it wasn’t!
After the debate, Harris and her team sought to amend her seeming support for the total elimination of the private industry. She had misunderstood the question, they argued, believing that she was raising her hand to say that her own health care – as a member of Congress – would be eliminated and put into a government-run system.
“So, the question was would you be willing to give up your private insurance,” Harris said on CBS’s “This Morning” Friday. When one of the CBS anchors noted that that wasn’t how the question was asked, Harris replied, “that is certainly what I heard.” She then added: “I am supportive of a Medicare for All policy, and under a Medicare for All policy, private insurance would certainly exist for supplemental coverage.”
Here’s the exact wording of moderator Lester Holt’s question: “And this is going to be a show of hands question. We asked a question about health care last night that spurred a lot of discussion, as you know. We’re going to do it again now. Many people watching at home have health insurance through their employer. Who here would abolish their private health insurance in favorite of a government-run plan?”
Is it possible that Harris interpreted that question as being about her specific health insurance? Maybe! But, none of the other nine candidates on stage Thursday night had that same confusion. Neither did the 10 candidates who NBC asked the same question the previous night. (Only Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio raised their hands in support of the elimination of private insurance on Wednesday night.)
That Harris simply misunderstood the question seems a bit fishy for two reasons.
First, as I just noted, not only had the private insurance industry question been asked – in the same way – less than 24 hours before in the previous night’s debate. And the answers the candidates offered on Wednesday – particularly Warren’s – drew lots of attention. It’s very hard to imagine that Harris was caught totally off guard by the same question being asked of her – or thought that what was being asked was something more nuanced than “Do you want to get rid of all private health insurance?”
The second reason why Harris’ misunderstanding explanation is hard to swallow is that she’s already done this whole rigamarole once before!
Back in January, at a CNN town hall in Iowa, this exchange happened between Harris and moderator Jake Tapper:
Tapper: So just to follow up – so just to follow up on that, and correct me if I’m wrong, to reiterate, you support the Medicare for All bill, I think …
Tapper: … initially co-sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders. You’re also a co-sponsor onto it. I believe it will totally eliminate private insurance. So for people out there who like their insurance, they don’t get to keep it?
Harris: Well, listen, the idea is that everyone gets access to medical care, and you don’t have to go through the process of going through an insurance company, having them give you approval, going through the paperwork, all of the delay that may require. Who of us has not had that situation, where you’ve got to wait for approval, and the doctor says, well, I don’t know if your insurance company is going to cover this? Let’s eliminate all of that. Let’s move on.
Harris’ answer – particularly the “let’s eliminate all of that” portion – was widely reported as her coming out in favor of jettisoning the private healthcare industry entirely. Which led liberals to praise her and the likes of Howard Schultz – remember him??? – to criticize her for backing a policy that he suggested was “not American.”
Within 24 hours – stop me if this sounds familiar – the Harris campaign was aggressively pushing back on the idea that she had said she supported the total elimination of the private insurance industry. Tweeted Harris communications director Lily Adams at the time:
“A few facts:
“Kamala Harris has advocated for Medicare for All for more than a year.
“She has also cosponsored other bills to increase coverage over the course of the last 2 years bc we like people having health care.
“Her preference is still Medicare for All.”
Eventually the controversy over where Harris stands on Medicare for All died down – and the senator herself seemed to have settled on a middle ground position that did not include the destruction of the private health insurance industry (as Sanders has repeatedly advocated). In May, Harris told Tapper – on his Sunday show “State of the Union” – that she did not support abolishing the private insurance sector.
“No, no, no, no, it does not get rid of insurance,” she said of her support for Medicare for All. “It doesn’t get rid of supplemental insurance.”
That doesn’t jibe with Sanders’ vision for his Medicare for All proposal. As he said in a statement Friday: “If you support Medicare for All, you have to be willing to end the greed of the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries. That means boldly transforming our dysfunctional system by ending the use of private health insurance, except to cover non-essential care like cosmetic surgeries.”
Given the massive hubbub earlier this year over questions as to whether Harris supports getting rid of private health insurance, you would think she would be extra careful when it came to anything even adjacent to that issue in Thursday’s debate. As in: If she wasn’t sure she was understanding what the question was asking, request that the moderators clarify. She didn’t do that.
Harris’ ongoing struggle to nail down a position on what she would do with the private health insurance markets might get lost in the immediate after-action reports of what was, in all other ways, an extremely strong performance. But, if Harris does wind up as the Democratic nominee – and she looked every bit of it on Thursday night – you can be sure President Donald Trump’s campaign will seize on all of her uncertainty on the issue to raise questions about what she actually believes – and why.