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WASHINGTON — With the fact of serious ethical breaches by President Trump all but demonstrated, most elected Republicans do not seem to be struggling with their consciences over impeachment. They wrestle, instead, with a more practical challenge: continuing to support a corrupt man without appearing too corrupt themselves.

This is not the kind of political objective that encourages idealism and attracts young people to public service.

Instead, the torch has been passed to a new generation of shills and rationalizers, frightened of their own mercurial leader, intimidated by an angry base and dedicated to maintaining the blessing of presidential fundraising for their campaigns.

The main occupation of the GOP at this point in history is the defense of public corruption, which is a particularly insidious form of corruption. Those who excuse Trump’s abuses of power will not escape his taint.

And yet — at this low point of presidential character and congressional GOP courage — perhaps the most politically talented Democratic challenger to Trump in 2020, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, is 6 points behind the president in Michigan, even with Trump in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and 4 points behind Trump in Florida (according to recent surveys by The New York Times Upshot and Siena College).

This should horrify Democrats. One of the most exciting, substantive, compelling voices in their presidential field would stand a good chance of re-electing Donald Trump.

And this is not a problem that can be solved through good speeches and clever advertising. The weak points that Trump would exploit are the centerpieces of Warren’s campaign — the very reasons that Democrats are falling for her.

The health-care issue symbolizes the problem. In producing her recent funding plan for “Medicare for All,” Warren doubled down on ending private health insurance in America.

This ideological boldness is precisely what many Democrats like about her.

But now Warren has very little flexibility to make her plan seem less disruptive and frightening in a general election against Trump. “You can’t unring that bell,” says William Galston of the Brookings Institution.

This presents three difficulties. First, Warren is proposing to hugely expand the role and reach of government in our lives, and to spend an additional $20.5 trillion (or more) over 10 years, at a time when trust in government is near an all-time low.

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Her plan to socialize — there is no other word for it — the health insurance industry fights against a swift current of public skepticism.

Second, Obamacare — which Warren proposes to replace — has stabilized over time. Though it never achieved what its champions promised, it has reduced the number of uninsured Americans and provided some useful lessons for the next rounds of reform.

This argues in favor of incremental changes — of the kind former Vice President Joe Biden proposes — rather than the dramatic transformation of a system that would displace insurance arrangements for tens of millions.

Third, Warren’s contention that Medicare for All can be created without middle-class tax increases remains questionable, in spite of her recently released, 26-page funding proposal.

In Galston’s view, the Warren approach relies on optimistic cost and revenue estimates that the Urban Institute and others have sharply disputed. It doesn’t account for the likely responses of corporations and wealthy individuals to massive tax increases.

It assumes huge cuts in defense spending and the passage of comprehensive immigration reform. And it assumes that non-rural hospitals can meet their costs based on 110% (or less) of current Medicare payments.

When Biden was asked about Warren’s funding approach, he replied: “She’s making it up.” There is serious evidence to support that charge — and it will be Warren’s burden to answer it during the Nov. 20 debate.

The main question that Warren faces as a candidate is this: Can she eventually transform her public image from being a progressive populist to being a mere populist? Her health-care proposal indicates she cannot.

Trump’s charge of Socialism — more accurately, SOCIALISM! — may seem hyperbolic. But it is more likely to stick when a candidate proposes to abolish all private health insurance, put a government bureaucracy in charge, and spend an additional $2 trillion a year on her ambitions.

It is always tempting to view the weakness of a political opponent as an opportunity to gain total ideological victory. But in the case of Trump, this would be a blunder.

If the 2018 midterms are any indication, the president has shed supporters at the more moderate edges of his coalition. And they will be attracted by stability and incrementalism, not disruption and radicalism — no matter how principled and well explained.

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Michael Gerson’s email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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(8) comments

bolake

Pols should be forced to live under the same Healthcare System as all of us. Then maybe they would change it.

bolake

There are so many ways to lower health care cost it’s not even funny anymore. Sadly the focus is on impeachment because Democrats have admitted they can not beat Trump in 2020. Republicans are guiltily as well, they could force the health care agenda if they chose to.

bolake

Hive - I honestly cannot support any of the current Democrat 2020 hopefuls. Yang wants to pay every American a “Freedom Dividend” of $1,000 a month. How is that going to work? Will old guys like us qualify? He plans to pay for it with a Value Added Tax (paid on every business transaction, up and down the supply chain). How is that going to help? Everything we buy would just cost more? It’s like every Democrat candidate is proposing a quid pro quo. You vote for me I’ll forgive your student loan debt, I’ll give you free college, I’ll give you free Medicare, I’ll give you Baby bonds , I’ll pay you Reparations. And the best part is that none of us have to pay for any of it, they are going to get that rich guy up the street to pay the bill, whoever that is.

I was going to say maybe Tulsi Gabbard but I heard she is a Russian asset.

Hive

JD, IF we wanted to do health care, we would cuz we can, but the debt looms and pols care more about themselves than if constituents croak...to me.

Hive

Bo, Trump is a loser...but if we re elect him, then are we not jumping in the lake too? Let's put a youngin' in there, like Yang...cannot hurt, can it?

bolake

JD - You finally get in regards to Omar and Medicare For All. Now we can move on to the ills of Free College and Debt Forgiveness, or not.

The only thing that will save Democrats is if Bloomberg or Ms. Obama get in the race. I saw somewhere that Ms. Obama polled at 50% which is like 20 points higher than Warren, Bernie or Biden. Heard Bloomberg is seriously thinking about it and would put in $100 Million of his own money to get started. That’s like $90 Million more than Biden currently has in campaign coffer.

Democrats need to get serious platform (as Hive has suggested) to run on or it’s 4 more years of Trump.

jdinfinity

Hive, Omar already proved she didn't care about the Armeniens being massacred so you're probably right and so screw her.

Anyways, there's a radio pr program I listened to on healthcare costs. It was frightening. It said that even with all the money, from everyone and everything, u can't even touch it. Once we get to the point of fixing everything? What cost is a life? And the thought is infinite, but the reality is we don't have enough money, in any system, without bankrupting it, to cure everyone. Supposedly the system is doomed to failure.

So basically... The world is going to kill you. And the financial cost burden is greater than what any bullroar politician huckster can pretend to attempt to provide you with. Making them all liars on healthcare.

Hive

While what Gerson states may be the conservative view in him, he may be correct.

Warren is way off her reservation, though dear to out hearts, IMO.

If she selected deficit elimination, which can be done, in conjunction with a real and not "underhanded corporate" less-taxes reform, one might be persuaded to lean her way.

As it is, Warren is another liberal loser, like MN very own Omar (MN Congressional politician, whose constituency is made up of Somali-based blacks, who she will screw, as sure as the sun rises.)

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