Vice President Joe Biden finds himself defending Obamacare against opponents on both the right and the left.
Vice President Joe Biden finds himself defending Obamacare against opponents on both the right and the left. (Claire Collins / Los Angeles Times)

Ever since the Democrats and President Barack Obama first advocated the national health care legislation plan that came to bear the ex-president’s name, Republicans have made it their political target.

Time and again, Grand Old Party efforts to hang Obamacare around the neck of the rival Democrats have failed in Congress. The most memorable defeat came on that late-night 2018 attempt at repeal in the Senate. A dying Sen. John McCain left his Arizona sick bed and flew to Washington to deliver the deciding vote against his party caucus.

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Since then, progressive Democrats led by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-styled democratic socialist, have been championing Medicare For All, a proposed government-run inclusionary health care insurance program that would replace Obamacare.

Several other 2020 Democratic presidential candidates were quick to climb aboard, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and, at first, California Sen. Kamala Harris, who surged in the polls after an aggressive takedown of Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden in their first debate.

Senator Harris’s strategy then was to highlight Mr. Biden’s opposition as a Delaware senator in 1974 to federally mandated school busing to counter racial segregation. Ms. Harris effectively declared she was a beneficiary of such busing in her own state as young girl of color.

Mr. Biden slipped in the polls as a result but has recovered since. Possibly it was because he had already embraced the salvation of Obamacare, of which he was a solid supporter as Mr. Obama’s vice president.

Now Mr. Biden has seized the role of Obamacare savior, making it clear he opposes abandoning the Affordable Care Act framework, through which employers and labor unions are committed to pay part or all their workers’ or members’ policy premiums.

The former veep was among the first public figures to declare he opposed seeing millions of these employees and union members losing their private-industry insurance. He backed a so-called “public option” whereby the government would set up an insurance enterprise to ensure that all could find coverage. Mr. Biden’s rival Senator Harris has now backed off her fulsome embrace of Medicare For All and appears to endorse keeping private insurance and introducing a public option.

It would be ironic if after all the GOP attempts to kill Obamacare, it turned out to be Mr. Biden’s best political crutch. He now fortuitously finds himself leading the opposition not only to the Republicans still clinging to hopes to kill the hated plan. He also stands among the millions of Democrats who want to hold on to their private health coverage paid by others along with improving existing Obamacare.

The old GOP war cry of “repeal and replace Obamacare” still lives within the unholy coalition of anti-Obamacare Republicans and some progressive Democrats seeking to move their party leftward. In the latter, Messrs. Obama and Biden are cast as resisters to changes demanded by the times and aspirations of a new generation of Democrats.

But Jill Biden, wife of the former veep, has taken to a TV ad arguing that beating President Donald Trump must be the Democrats’ first priority, and she points to the latest CNN poll showing her husband still holding a double-digit lead over Mr. Sanders, Ms. Harris and the rest as the best bet to end the Trump era.

Mr. Biden’s age of 76 and his serial if trivial gaffes continue to be raised against him, and they may still prove decisive in the end. But so far, he remains the obvious frontrunner, with Mr. Trump’s own demonstrable ineptness as president the strongest argument for a change at the top.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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