Moderator: Let’s start the debate with the number one issue for Democratic voters, healthcare. And Senator Sanders, let’s start with you, you support Medicare for All, which would eventually take private health insurance away for more than 150 million Americans in exchange for government sponsored healthcare for everyone. Congressman Delaney just referred to it as “bad policy,” and previously he has called the idea, “political suicide that will just get President Trump reelected.” What do you say to Congressman Delaney?
Bernie Sanders: You’re wrong.
Briahna Joy Gray: Last Tuesday’s debate was a glorious show of the enduring power of progressive politics.
Bernie Sanders: I get a little bit tired of Democrats afraid of big ideas. Republicans are not afraid of big ideas. They could give a trillion dollars in tax breaks to billionaires and profitable corporations. They can bail out the crooks on Wall Street. So please don’t tell me that we cannot take on the fossil fuel industry and nothing happens unless we do that.
Briahna Joy Gray: Standing together at the center of the stage, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren withstood a barrage of bad faith attacks on progressive policies so laden with conservative assumptions that they might as well have been written by Fox News.
Jake Tapper: Would you raise taxes on the middle class to pay for Medicare for All?
Dana Bash: Senator Sanders, you want to provide undocumented immigrants free healthcare and free college. Why won’t this drive even more people to come to the US illegally?
Jake Tapper: If Medicare for All is enacted, there are more than 600,000 union members here in Michigan who would be forced to give up their private healthcare plans. Are you saying that Senator Sanders is too extreme to beat President Trump? If voters are hearing the same message from you and President Trump on the issue of military intervention, how should they expect that you will be any different from him?
Senator Warren, you want to make it US policy that the US will never use a nuclear weapon unless another country uses one first. Why should the US tie its own hands with that policy?
Briahna Joy Gray: It’s perhaps unsurprising then that after the debate, the media seemed to have one prevailing question: did Bernie and Warren plan this? Bernie answered this last week on CBS Thursday morning.
Bernie Sanders: Look, Elizabeth and I have been friends for over 20 year. She’s running her campaign and I’m running my campaign. They’re different campaigns.
Briahna Joy Gray: Of course, the distinctions between the campaigns will be made increasingly clear over the coming weeks, including the reality that Bernie Sanders’ campaign is uniquely driven by a grassroots movement that extends over this entire country, and which draws disproportionately from the black, white, and Latinx working classes. But it’s impossible not to notice that if anything, debate night was a referendum on centrist politics.
Bernie Sanders: Jake, your question is a Republican talking point. At the end of the day, and by the way, and by the way, by the way, the healthcare industry will be advertising tonight on this program.
Jake Tapper: Thank you, Senator. 30 seconds.
Bernie Sanders: They’ll be advertising tonight with that talking point.
The truth is that every credible poll that I have seen has me beating Donald Trump.
Elizabeth Warren: You know, I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for President of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for. I don’t get it.
Bernie Sanders: What do you do with an industry that knowingly for billions of dollars in short term profits is destroying this planet? I say that is criminal activity.
Dana Bash: Thank you.
Bernie Sanders: That cannot be allowed to continue.
Dana Bash: Thank you, Senator.
Tim Ryan: You don’t know that Bernie.
Bernie Sanders: Second of all-
Jake Tapper: We’ll come to you in a second, Congressman.
Bernie Sanders: I do know it. I wrote the damn bill.
Briahna Joy Gray: Last week in Detroit, we saw Bernie and Elizabeth fend off attack after attack from moderate candidates like Delaney, Hickenlooper, and Bullock, who told us that Bernie’s ideas are too drastic, too unfeasible, too well, progressive. Meanwhile we’re seeing more centrist candidates like Kamala Harris borrow the language of the progressive left, Medicare for All, for example, to describe their own less ambitious proposals.
We know that if there’s one thing cable news craves, it’s a conflict. And the pundits last week seemed more interested in stoking those divisions than elucidating real difference between more moderate and progressive plans. But does this developing narrative really reflect the views of the Democratic base?
Jon Favreau: Most people in the Democratic party, Democrats who voted for Hillary Clinton, like Bernie, and vice versa. A lot of Bernie supporters would happily have voted for Hillary Clinton and like Democrats.
Briahna Joy Gray: That was Jon Favreau of ‘Pod Save America’ fame. Jon worked in the Obama administration as a speechwriter for four years before founding the media empire Crooked Media, which produces some of the largest and most influential political podcasts anywhere. I wanted to talk to Jon because he’s played a big part in the ongoing conversation about what path the Democratic party should take as it seeks to reclaim the White House, the Senate, and state and local offices across the country.
Is the center-left divide real or overblown? What do those terms mean anyway? And how can the broader left, which shares so many of the same values, unite to defeat Trump, turn back the rightward slide of our institutions, and begin making the big changes that this country and planet so desperately need?
This is Hear the Bern, a podcast about the people, ideas, and politics that are driving the Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign and the movement to secure a dignified live for everyone living in this country. My name is Briahna Joy Gray, and I’m coming to you from campaign headquarters in Washington D.C.
So, one of the reasons I was really excited to talk to you is because in some ways, we have kind of different but overlapping audiences. This project of running for office in 2019-2020 is ultimately about coalition building and bringing together a coalition that is big enough and powerful enough and strong enough to beat Donald Trump, right. And (crosstalk)
Jon Favreau: Right.
Briahna Joy Gray: To the extent, that there’s any kind of lingering issues or divisions between kind of the center-left or left factions, I want to kind of talk through them with you as someone who’s kind of an expert, I think, on one cohort and me, maybe coming from another cohort, about what kind of gains to trade we can find and what overlap we can find, and how to kind of resolve any lingering issues that might still persist.
Jon Favreau: Sure. It’s interesting because I think about this sort of from two different perspectives. One, there’s clearly some hard feelings between the left and liberals when you’re scrolling through Twitter every day. I don’t know that those divisions are there among most voters as much, because you guys have seen this, when you look at polls, most people in the Democratic party, Democrats who voted for Hillary Clinton like Bernie, and vice versa, a lot of Bernie supporters happily voted for Hillary Clinton and like Democrats.
And so, I do think there are real substantive policy differences and political differences, but I think, it’s probably important to start with the fact that they get magnified on Twitter by sort of activists on both sides, who kind of do this for a living. And I’ve got caught up in that myself. I think it really, there’s just something about the medium that when you’re arguing and fighting, you sort of go a little overboard and then those divisions harden as a result.
Briahna Joy Gray: You describe it as a left-liberal divide, and even those terms can be really charged. People throw around left, liberal, centrist, neo-liberal, progressive, all of these terms are out there, and sometimes when I’m even trying to talk about this, I find myself tripping over my words. I don’t want to use a term that someone finds alienating but I also am trying to be descriptive in a way that I do think is meaningful.
Jon Favreau: Yeah, no, and I just said left and liberal, and I don’t even use the same terminology all the time myself. I don’t really know what… because also, if you ask me how I describe myself, I’d probably just say, “I’m a progressive Democrat,” but other people might think differently, other people might call me, “a neo-liberal shill,” like I don’t know.
Briahna Joy Gray: We won’t be calling anybody that around there.
So last night, I’m recording this the day after the first night of the second Democratic party debates. Last night was really, it really highlighted the extent to which there are two factions within the Democratic party. And a member of the centrist, more centrist faction last night, Bullock actually described himself as a progressive. He says, “I’m a progressive, emphasis on progress.”
Steve Bullock: I’m a progressive, emphasis on progress.
Briahna Joy Gray: And I think when things like that happen, when you have such clear lines delineated, and then someone on the less progressive group is owning that term, that’s where you get the frustration about the term police and who are you to say this, and then that isn’t entirely distinct from the policy conversation, right. And what was also happening on stage was a bunch of people who had maintained their commitment to Medicare for All, Medicare for All being a single payer healthcare system, who in the last couple of days or week or so, have begun to distance themselves from themselves from Medicare for All by putting forward their own policies that are not in fact single payer as we all understand Medicare to be. So, I don’t think it’s just a semantic debate, and I want to ask, what did you make of the factions that emerged between kind of Bernie and Warren and basically the rest of the crowd?
Jon Favreau: So, let’s take the example of healthcare, right. So obviously, Bernie has been for single payer for many, many, many years, right, but I would say in 2009, when we were trying to pass the Affordable Care Act, the left position or the progressive position during that debate was including a public option, right. There was no serious proposal that went beyond a public option, right, in that debate. And now, there’s a whole bunch of candidates that are proposing a public option, but you have Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke’s Medicare for America, right. Those two policies, if they had been proposed in 2009 by members of Congress during the debate of the Affordable Care Act would’ve been seen as very lefty progressive policies.
It is, we’re talking about automatic enrollment. In Kamala’s case, you’re obviously going to get to single payer at the end of 10 years, even if you have some Medicare private plans on the market as well. But those are pretty, very progressive positions. Now, they’re seen, somebody talked about, I think, Medicare for America last night, Beto’s plan, in the opening as like the moderate position. And it’s funny because I guess it’s a moderate position compared to the fact that we have two major candidates, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, talking about single payer Medicare for All, but it’s all relative speaking. That is a testament to the left and to activists that they have, and I said this to Senator Sanders during our interview, that they have pushed the entire debate over healthcare to the left, so that now we are having a debate between the public option, which was the left position in 2009, and actual single payer.
Briahna Joy Gray: And I think that’s a very important point, that the term progressive, it is ultimately I think and always will be a relative term. And I think that that’s where part of the problem comes is when change happens rather quickly, and you’ve seen this in other areas like the quickness with which the world has shifted on LGBTQIA issues, right.
Jon Favreau: Yeah.
Briahna Joy Gray: There are people who maybe aren’t the worst but who kind of have this Archie Bunker mentality, because it’s like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I want to get on board, but now I’ve got to say what now and pronouns,” and they get caught up in that sort of thing, and with time will probably come around, they’re not like hardened bigots. I think there’s a version of that with policies. There are people who are used to seeing themselves as progressives, who because this new flank has emerged, are unsettled with, by the idea that they wouldn’t be sitting in the most left position, and there’s a way that we can kind of identify as the left, the most left person or the most progressive person.
And when that becomes no longer the case, there’s two reactions you can have. You can say, “Oh, well cool, there’s this new panoply of options available. Let me hop on board,” or, “Let me dig in my heels and kind of defend my turf and kind of be resentful of the idea that my identity is being challenged in this way.” I’m very sensitive to that, because I think that those people aren’t people who disagree per se, but who need to be made to feel like they are a part of this change, as opposed to kind of like a fatality or like a consequence of the change.
Jon Favreau: I think it’s a very important point, because I think, you know this since you’re on a campaign, right, the purpose of building a movement, right, is to enact a political and social change, and to grow that movement, you need to persuade others to join it. And to persuade others to join it, it has to be more welcoming. “Here’s our ideas. They’re great. Please come join us in this movement.” And sometimes I feel like the arguments between sort of the center left and the left of the party are more about like, “I don’t want to persuade you of my ideas. I want to prove that I’m right and you’re wrong, and just win the argument, and not actually persuade you to come join me.”
And so, like I am a very persuadable person, for example. I have probably changed my views or my views have evolved on a number of issues because I’ve listened to arguments on one side or the other, and I thought, “Oh that is actually a good point.” When I think about sort of this healthcare debate and Medicare for All, I do have obviously political considerations in mind in terms of, “Okay, what can pass? What can’t pass? How to,” but I also thinking substantively about the policy, right. I think about like, “Okay, well what happens to 500,000 or whatever people who work in the private insurance industry, right? They’re not all executives. Some of them are employees. What should we do?” That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t move to single payer, but it’s a consideration, right, like, “How are we going to convince people? Your taxes are going up. Yes, you’re not going to pay any premiums or co-pays or deductibles, but if you’re healthy, you might not notice that as much and your taxes still will go up, but it’s a better deal for you in the long run,” right. That’s a substantive debate to have.
But I feel like sometimes, and I actually think last night in the debate, we didn’t really get to this, the debates are, become sort of political debates and they’re like stand ins for political identity, and we actually don’t get into the actual weeds of the policy where there’s real good faith debate to be had about all the options.
Briahna Joy Gray: I agree with that, but I think I might put the onus less even on the candidates on the stage, although there are some who willfully leaned in and participated in that kind of politicization of it, but even the questions as they came from the moderators seemed just almost wholly political. I think the first one out of the gate, I mean there were questions like, “Don’t you think you’re too socialist to have, for these ideas to fly in the Midwest,” right. I did a radio interview earlier today where the host asked me, “Isn’t it fair to ask whether or not, how you’re going to win over Midwestern voters?” I said, “Absolutely, that’s a fair question and I appreciate you bringing that question to me and I will answer it for you right now,” but that’s very different than you saying to me, “Hey, how are you going to sell your socialist snake oil to the Midwest?” You can kind of have a leading question and project what you obviously feel about the debate onto the stage, and then make it so that people aren’t having a conversation about what it means to have a four year transition to Medicare for All versus a 10 year transition to a Medicare Advantage program politically, and instead you’re having this question about people’s squishy feelings or at best, loose poll numbers.
Jon Favreau: We’ve been talking about this here, if I had my way, I think that the networks would host the debates, but the moderators would be activists and issue experts who can actually delve into the policy, because you… look this is just how reporters do… it’s like I don’t think they do it out of any malicious intent, but it is sort of they know that they need to drive to conflict always and they also use a lot of shorthand, right. It takes a long time, as you know, to dig into each one of these issues and to know the policy cold and to know all the details cold of all these policies, and so sometimes you do hear from reporters sort of a shorthand and they fall back on the more political questions and questions that are going to elicit conflict, and they’re not having really, sort of thoughtful policy debates, and they’re not asking thoughtful policy questions instead because they want to figure out where the soundbite is going to come from. And that is not great.
Briahna Joy Gray: How do you think that that’s affecting the voters’ understanding of what options are genuinely on the table? Because I listened to your interview with Senator Sanders and I was really shocked by the fact that if you listened to like the first 10 minutes, I felt like, “Okay, this is Bernie Sanders sounding like Bernie Sanders, nothing really new.” And then after a while, the conversation kind of warms up and evolves, and he starts to explain the policy. At one point, he walks you through the four-year transition process.
Bernie Sanders: And all we are trying to do over a four-year period, and people say, “Bernie, it shouldn’t take four years.” Here it is, okay. You’ve got Medicare right now. You’re 65, you get into Medicare. We’re going to expand Medicare benefits, and I mention that. And then, the first year, we’re going from 65 down to 55. Really? Is that really so difficult?
Jon Favreau: Right.
Bernie Sanders: And then the next year, down to 45. And then the next year, down to 35.
Jon Favreau: It is more gradual than people-
Bernie Sanders: Yeah.
Jon Favreau: Probably assume.
Bernie Sanders: People criticize me for, actually the House bill moves it more rapidly than I do.
Briahna Joy Gray: It struck me that I haven’t heard many interviews where that aspect of the explanation has come out. And what does that mean that we’re having these debates, because it doesn’t take very long to explain, year one: 55 and up, year two: 45 and up, year three: 35 and up, that’s not, that takes 15 seconds.
So, what’s going on that we have these listenerships, whether it’s people who are watching debates, people who are tuning into media all over the place, and we’re not able to get to where you got the Senator.
Jon Favreau: It’s a great question, what’s going on. Part of me thinks that if we really all talked about the policies themselves and broke them down, one of the issues would be that the contrasts don’t seem or the differences don’t seem quite as wide.
My view on some of these Medicare for All debates is we are, except for some of the people who are just doing just a pure public option, I think they’re pretty far away from single payer, right, but on some of these policies, I think we’re sort of all arguing about that transition period, what the transition looks like.
Look, there’s plenty of countries around the world that will say they have universal healthcare. Not all of them are exactly single payer. Some of them have room for private insurance. But they still achieve universal coverage and they achieve cost reductions, and they control the costs very well. So, there’s a couple different ways to do it.
But I think if you broke it down and said, “Okay, well, Bernie’s transition is a four years window where we bring it down to 55 and then we bring it up and then we keep going that way, and Kamala’s plan is a 10 year, but at the end, you have Medicare Advantage-like plans like we have right now but they’re very tightly regulated,” then you can sort of see the differences in the two plans, but it doesn’t, where I’m worried is that the difference between Bernie Sanders’ plan and Kamala Harris’ plan is going to be sort of made to be this huge monumental difference, and I actually don’t see it as that big of a difference. There are definitely tradeoffs to each plan. There’s pluses and minuses to each plan.
Briahna Joy Gray: I think this is actually a really fascinating place to land, because I think this is also, because I can feel what my reaction is and I can feel the liberal counter reaction, which is to say, “Oh, leftists are just so melodramatic. Why are they always shouting?” Bernie got that last night, where like, “Why are you so shouty? Why are you so impassioned about this? These differences are not that significant.”
And what comes to my head is, “Okay, the moral argument for Medicare for All, right, the healthcare as a human right,” which is a phrase a lot of people have been deploying now, but people who don’t actually believe that there needs to be universal coverage, right.
So, when Bernie Sanders says, “We should have healthcare as a human right.” It means that your financial circumstances should never come between you and lifesaving or life sustaining care. That healthcare must be, at bottom, free at point of service.
That idea of free at point of service is a kind of a detail that doesn’t get discussed actually in this conversation. I think Americans have no real concept of what it means to walk into a hospital, see a doctor, and just walk out.
Jon Favreau: Right.
Briahna Joy Gray: Swipe an insurance card, but walk out. Not an insurance card, but a card that shows that you’re from the… whatever it is, and then walk out. And so, when we’re talking about the difference between the plans, when you’re talking about Kamala Harris’ plan, which has this 10 year roll out, it’s also a political question. It’s a question that says if Obamacare had a 10 year roll out, we’d be sitting in the middle of a roll out that Donald Trump would’ve ultimately canceled or done his best to thwart, right.
Jon Favreau: Yeah.
Briahna Joy Gray: So, these are not just distinctions without a difference, there’s the political aspect of it, which says that her plan might not have legs because it’s just highly implausible. She’s counting on having two terms herself, plus a Democratic president following her or a friendly president following her, a person who’s friendly to her policy.
And on a substantive level, there are these conversations about plans, which ultimately still require people to pay significant amounts in insurance and which protect Medicare Advantage, which was a Bush era giveaway to the private insurance company that has resulted in 30 billion dollars’ worth of government waste over the last three years.
I’m with you about discussing the details, but I would argue that when you bring out those kind of details, it really concretizes the extent to which one policy really is healthcare as a human right and one policy is more this kind of technocratic tinkering that has kind of gotten us into the mess that we’re in today.
Jon Favreau: Do you think that a plan like Kamala’s is technocratic tinkering? Do you think that, obviously there’s the risk as you mentioned that if it’s a 10-year window, someone else can get elected and upend the whole system, right? I also was there for implementing the Affordable Care Act in four years for us to implement it, it still wasn’t enough time, as you remember from Healthcare.gov and all the rest of it. So, some of these things just actually take time to move everyone over.
But at the end of the 10 years for hers, it seems like every single American is covered. It seems like it is free at point of service for everyone, except for in some of these Medicare Advantage-type plans, there may be additional services if you so choose. Or maybe I’m wrong, maybe there’s still a bunch of co-pays and deductibles if you choose those plans.
Briahna Joy Gray: It’s like a Medium post and not, at this stage at least, a very well developed, and I think there’s actually just genuinely not a lot of details, so there’s a lot of… part of the issue is there’s a lot of projection on to what this is actually going to mean.
So that’s true.
But I also want to highlight here what we do know about Medicare Advantage plans, which are private insurance alternatives to the standard Medicare program, and to which more than a third of all Medicare beneficiaries are enrolled.
A report by federal investigators late last year found that Medicare Advantage plans improperly denied medical claims in an attempt to increase their profits, according to the New York Times.
Enrollment in these plans has grown rapidly. That’s partly because they generally offer services that Medicare currently does not, such as vision and dental coverage. Services which, by the way, Bernie’s Medicare for All would cover. But it’s also because insurers market them heavily to seniors.
On top of that, the federal government tends to nudge seniors toward these plans. For example, an email campaign last year from the federal government had headlines like, “Could Medicare Advantage be right for you?,” and “Get more benefits for your money.”
The overarching frustration is that in a world where there’s been so much work done to push the Overton window, that by some polls at least, Medicare for All has upwards of 70% popularity and a majority of Republicans even support it.
To then have someone who is part of your own party and ostensibly part of your own coalition, who has co-signed on to Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill, that offers something less than that is difficult to understand that as anything other than an unnecessary political concession. And to whom? Well, then you start to get into these questions of who has taken the pledge not to take money from pharmaceutical companies, and this is where it starts to feel personal. And this is where-
Jon Favreau: Yeah.
Briahna Joy Gray: People who like Kamala Harris for reasons I very much understand as an individual and what she represents, start to feel like, “Well, you’re telling me the person that I like who does great things for a lot of different communities and who’s interpersonally charming and intelligent and compelling in a lot of ways is a quote unquote bad person because she took this money from the pharmaceutical industry, and now you’re telling me she’s a shill for them.”
It’s difficult because I feel like those arguments need to be made because there is a relationship between money and politics and the policies pursued by various people, which is why you see such a distinction between the plans Warren and Sanders put forward and some of the others, but it does become this personalized, emotional, kind of like sensitive conversation that I’m really hesitant about. I don’t want people to feel like I’m attacking their fave, when I’m pointing out that-
Jon Favreau: Yeah.
Briahna Joy Gray: I think that their fave might have divided interests.
Jon Favreau: I think you guys have a legitimate beef with Kamala Harris for signing on to Bernie’s plan at first and then saying, “Oh just kidding, I’m going to have a different plan,” right, because clearly at one point, she favored Bernie’s plan, right.
So, the question is why did she change plans. And to me, it doesn’t seem like it had anything to do with money from insurance companies or pharmaceutical companies because why wouldn’t that have factored into her consideration the first time she signed on to Bernie Sanders?
Briahna Joy Gray: Why do you, because when you, what if you sided with something in 2017, three years before an election season, at a time when people’s institutional memories aren’t really there, no one’s really paying that much attention, I think it’s actually pretty common and easy to sign on to any number of bills.
People sign on to multiple bills that say different things. Different Medicare for All programs, people signed on to Pramila Jayapal’s plan and Bernie Sanders’ plan. Hers is a two years-
Jon Favreau: Yeah.
Briahna Joy Gray: Ours is a four years. I don’t think that just because it requires a little bit of flip flopping, I don’t think it’s fair to say, “Oh why would she do it then if she didn’t mean it now, if she were kind of politically captured in some way.” I think it is completely consistent with political capture to do something at a time where the politics of it don’t matter as much because you’re not running for office, and then to change your mind when the field starts to narrow and the interests come to play and the money starts rolling in and you have to court various interest groups.
Jon Favreau: Having been in the middle of some of these fights before, I think that what drives a lot of political decisions is fear, right. There’s a fear. And I don’t know that it’s necessarily always fear of corporate interests, though I’m sure that that definitely plays into a lot of it. It’s fear of what voters want. It’s fear of popularity.
The one group of people, the one interest group we don’t talk about a lot when we got into these policy debates is the voters, right, and what voters think. And I’ll use the example of the canceled insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act, right, and this always drove me nuts because everyone was like, “Oh, these three million cancellation notices went out. All these people lost their insurance,” blah, blah, blah, and I’m sitting there like, “We didn’t fucking cancel your insurance to take away your healthcare. We’re giving you better insurance. The reason that we canceled your insurance plan is because it didn’t meet standards that will protect you in a whole bunch of different ways. You’re getting a better healthcare plan because of these cancellation notices.”
But a lot of people had a reaction like, “Oh you took away my healthcare. You took away my plan. I’m scared,” right. Healthcare, as you know, is a very scary thing to a lot of people, right, and that’s why it can be so easily, there’s so much fear mongering around it, right. That’s what the insurance industry counts on, right, that they can scare the shit out of you.
But even if there were no insurance companies lobbying for this, even if they weren’t pouring, Republicans weren’t pouring millions of dollars into ads to scare the shit out of people about healthcare, I think there would still be a whole bunch of people who are like, “Okay, I know where I get my care now. I feel good about it, and I’m afraid of what change might mean.”
And I do think it’s incumbent on everyone, every candidate who wants to change the healthcare system, to take the concerns people have about changing the healthcare system as serious concerns that you need to address and persuade, and not dismissed as, “Oh, w-,” because if everyone says, “Oh well Kamala Harris has this other plan because she cares, it’s just about the insurance companies,” and whatever else, someone’s sitting at home who’s not influenced by the insurance companies, who probably hates the insurance companies is like, “Well what about my concern? If I’m going to pay more in taxes for this plan, what am I going to get out of it? And what’s going to happen to my doctor? What’s going to happen to my network?,” right.
And I’ve noticed that Bernie’s been doing this lately, but I’m surprised that the Medicare for All contingent hasn’t talked more about, “Well, you can keep your doctor because all of the doctors are in the same network,” right. To me, that’s a great, that’s a plus for the Medicare for All single payer plan.
Briahna Joy Gray: To me, those are legitimate questions. And when Bernie Sanders goes on the Fox News town hall and is cornered by Republican hosts who basically try to set him up by asking the crowd, “Who here would give up their private insurance company?” And almost everyone in the Republican Fox News audience raises their hands, what the voter is actually concerned about isn’t what’s being highlighted in most of these political conversations in the media-
Jon Favreau: Yeah.
Briahna Joy Gray: Because the voters, at least as polls suggest, overwhelmingly are in favor of Medicare for All. But even more important than that, I think the responsibility is with politicians to push the Overton window, to explain to voters the realm of what is possible. And if you have politicians, who as in 2016 were arguing back then, the idea of Medicare for All was a complete anathema, it was described as being like wanting a pony, right.
And in the short period of time, we’ve changed not magically, but because Bernie Sanders has over the course of the last three years continuously made the case to the American people, so what frustrates, I think, people on the left is when that case has been made and so much progress has been made, and then it feels like some of these candidates are intentionally trying to confuse the issue.
They know that Medicare for All is popular, which is why they call their plans Medicare for All or some version of that. They say things like, “Healthcare is a human right,” even though they go out of their way to have protections for the, to preserve the private insurance industry. They ask fear mongering questions, not good questions like, “Can I keep my doctor? Yes,” fear mongering questions, Bullock and Delaney are asking, “You’re going to take away Americans’ insurance,” the same way they said about Obamacare, right.
Jon Favreau: I’m really disliking where the debate is going because I think a bunch of people standing up on stage and saying, “These plans are going to just take your healthcare away,” is wrong, right. Yeah, your private insurance is going to change but you’re going to be on a more generous plan.
The real debate here is Bernie Sanders is offering a plan that is more generous than almost any Medicare plan or government plan in the world right now. Everything is paid for. There are all these different services, right. So, everything is free. Everything is paid for. It’s a good healthcare plan, like you’re not going to get a better healthcare plan.
The challenge is going to be financing it. We still really haven’t talked about financing it, right. When you’re going to be that generous on a healthcare plan, it’s going to cost some money, right.
Briahna Joy Gray: Here’s the beauty of the Sanders’ plan and this gets back to your point about what was going on with the political backlash that happened with the ACA, which is that Bernie has tried to sidestep some of that by being brutally honest, honest in a way that I think a lot of people would advise him not to be, about the fact that, “Yes-“
Jon Favreau: Right.
Briahna Joy Gray: “There is going to be a small single digit percentage raise in taxes for the majority of Americans that of course, yes, will be offset and much smaller than what you are going to save by not having to pay for health insurance anymore.” But he’s really tried to not hide the ball on that. Yes, taxes will go up, and we have also talked about these right-wing studies, like the Mercator study that showed that there’s like a two trillion dollars overall savings by cutting the waste out of the system.
So, I resist the narrative that we aren’t talking about the pay for. If anything, we have been… like, politically stabbed ourself in the back by being so upfront about the pay for. But I think that the American people, when I talk to them, when I’m traveling and talking to people in the field, what they say about Bernie Sanders is, “At least, I know what I’m going to get.” It does become frustrating when we’re asked again and again and again these same questions that have been asked and answered, when there are these important questions like, “Well how does the rollout work?,” that outside of your great interview with the Senator the other day, we’re just not hearing.
Jon Favreau: No, I mean look it’s the financing piece is tricky because, and I got to this with the Senator and said, “Can you guarantee that no one is going to pay more in taxes than they currently do in premiums,” and he said, “Yes.” This is the sort of fundamental challenge with the politics around healthcare and has been forever, if you are healthy and relatively well off, you don’t use much healthcare, so you don’t pay a lot maybe in premiums and co-pays and deductibles, but the whole point of healthcare is everyone’s going to get sick at some point and when you get sick, you’re going to need it.
But it’s still an argument that you have to make to people that the whole point of insurance is that there’s a whole bunch of people running around who think, “Oh I’m fine.” I don’t think, people don’t think about their premiums sometimes because some employers cover 80%, up to 100% of their healthcare, right, so they don’t see that some of their wages are actually being, they’re going towards their healthcare.
So I do think there’s this need to tell people, “Okay, your taxes are going up,” which Bernie is being very honest about, and even if you are not, even if you’re one of those people who’s not shelling out from your own pocket or at least it doesn’t seem like your own pocket, premiums every single month, you’re not going to the doctor, you’re not using a lot of healthcare, you have a heart attack, you get cancer, someone in your family gets really sick, you’re going to be really happy that you have quality free healthcare and you’re not going to mind that you, by the way, pay 4% more in taxes this year. It’s going to be a good deal.
Briahna Joy Gray: For sure, there are some people for whom that’s going to be an argument. But what I’ve learned, because I will admit to being in a bubble, right, like I was a corporate lawyer, then I was a journalist living in New York, and I’m not going to pretend to be anything than I’m not, but what I have learned about working on this campaign, my second week on the job, I run, obviously I run this podcast, and we did our second episode, it was about healthcare. And I sent a message out on the Slack channel asking if anybody would be willing to tell me their healthcare stories. I thought everyone here is really young, no one here is, obviously people are healthy enough to work. I thought this is a sensitive issue, people aren’t going to want to share their stories with me.
I was inundated with responses. As much as people are young and healthy, they, if you have had any experience at all with the healthcare system, it is one that is more often than not traumatizing. I’m sitting next to a 20 year old type one diabetic who is also dealing with being told she’s not going to get financial aid on her student loans and there’s this intersection of everything that Bernie Sanders is talking about in this real kind of working class every day agenda that doesn’t actually need that much of a sell or a pitch, I find, outside of the Beltway. And this is, I think, reflected in who it is that supports the campaign.
Jon Favreau: Yep.
Briahna Joy Gray: And there were just new numbers out today that showed that only 4% of Sanders voters make more than $100,000 a year, 4%. Now, the next lowest-
Jon Favreau: Yep.
Briahna Joy Gray: Is Andrew Yang at 18%, Harris is also 18%, Biden 18%, Warren 20%, Buttigieg 37% earn over $100,000 a year, right, and so Bernie is getting like, “It’s this elite agenda and how are you going to sell people on this? And Bernie bros are these white guys with kerchiefs and beards in Brooklyn,” all this, but the reality is we have disproportionately black and brown and working-class non-college educated support.
The frustration is it’s like a media mind F-U-C-K, where it’s like, that, I think, is where some of the tension and why you find the debate happening on Twitter more, because in the real world, people know the answer. There’s no tough sell. On Twitter, it’s like, “I know black people more than you know black people,” and there’s white middle-aged ladies telling me I need to learn something about black women before… it’s like this crazy proxy battle, right.
Jon Favreau: If I were to sum it up, I think that sometimes the left looks at the center-left and thinks that they have sort of bad motivations, either motivations based on political ambition or financial or who they’re listening to or whatever else, and that they’re only thinking about sort of political strategy. And then I think on the flip side, the center-left’s problem is they look at the left and think, “Okay, their heart’s in the right place, their motivation is good, but they don’t get politics and they don’t understand politics.”
And I think both sides are wrong about the other side. I believe and have seen and have come to realize the left does have a political strategy. They do understand politics, but their view of politics is, your view of politics is you’ve got to build a movement, and you do have to sort of take on very powerful forces and that that’s, there is a method to the madness here.
I come from an interesting perspective because Barack Obama was never a Bernie Sanders or even an Elizabeth Warren, but we did take on the Clintons and we were the sort outsider candidate against the establishment, so I know what it’s like to run against someone who is always telling you, “No, you can’t have this. No, this isn’t feasible. You’re just making false promises. You’re giving people false hope.” It is infuriating, right, because you’re saying, “I thought that the purpose of running for President and building a political and social movement was to inspire people to something better.”
But then I’ve also been in the White House and you realize that it’s a daily grind, and I’ve seen, the things that we couldn’t get done were not because a bunch of special interests were whispering in our ear or because Barack Obama was like, “Fuck it, I just need to get reelected, so I’m going to do this.” It’s because it’s really hard to sort of change public opinion, bring people together, and also have a citizenry that is not only with you, but willing to then push on their elected officials to make sure that they act in the right way too.
We dealt, we had a Senate most of the time in the White House where there’s a bunch of red state Democrats who were basically like Republicans. They’re not there anymore, but we never had a progressive majority to do anything. But what it looks like from the outside sometimes is it’s not that we didn’t have this progressive majority, but Obama was just some centrist who didn’t really want to bring about change.
Briahna Joy Gray: I don’t think that’s what the left thinks of Obama. What I think that we believe is that there was an energized, mobilized group that was incredibly excited to help carry that grassroots movement through his candidacy, but that-
Jon Favreau: Right.
Briahna Joy Gray: The grassroots establishment was dismantled when he became President and not attended to in the way that it could have if people had, that the administration had the same understanding of how beneficial that kind of a movement could’ve been to its insider political objectives once it’s actually in the Oval. I think there’s an awareness that it was difficult, that Lieberman blew the whole public option. We know that there are bad actors who were derailing the process, including among Democrats. I think our world view is why were those actors bad? Why were they doing the wrong thing? Well because there’s different interests in different localities across the country that different populations feel like they have to be attended to, different legislators have to be attendant to.
Jon Favreau: Yeah.
Briahna Joy Gray: And if there were that grassroots movement that they would have to be more beholden to in Kentucky and in Ohio and in Florida, and not just on the coast, that they would know that they would have to follow the President’s mandate and not capitulate to those special interests.
I just want to interrupt myself here to explain the scale of Barack Obama’s grassroots army. By the time, he clinched the presidency, Obama’s campaign had 800,000 registered users on its online organizing portal, 13 million email addresses, and taking advantage of an innovative, crowd sourced fundraising model, some 70,000 people with individual fundraising pages. At the time, no other campaign could boast such a formidable digital grassroots infrastructure. According to a 2017 article in ‘The New Republic,’ some Obama advisors drew up plans to transform that army into a citizen movement that could continue to organize and support the President’s agenda, as well as local politicians who shared Obama’s vision of change.
Instead, Obama’s campaign juggernaut was essentially put out to pasture after the election. Several consultants pushed back hard on the notion of creating an organizing structure outside of the DNC. Ultimately, the Obama campaign machine, renamed Organizing for America, was folded into the DNC, where many of its unique aspects, such as online tools to organize semi-autonomous groups were dismantled.
Jon Favreau: If we had to do it over again, we would absolutely try much harder to keep that grassroots movement alive. I do think among voters sometimes, and this is work that we all have to do, there is this or there has been in the past, this sort of transactional view of what politics is. So, there’s a lot of young people who were really excited about Barack Obama, but they voted for him in ’08, and the idea was, “All right, I’m going to give you my vote. Now, you go fix the world and I’m going to go back to my life and just focus on other shit.”
And I think we have learned through eight years of Obama and now under the Trump presidency, that that’s never going to be possible anymore. Democracy is not transactional and I think, it’s funny because I think Bernie, to me, is the only candidate right now who is really talking about the need for a movement. I really like that you guys do it’s not me, it’s us. Obama used to say that quite a bit. And I do think whoever is the next Democratic president, I don’t care how talented, how left or center-left or whatever that person is, they’re not going to get anything done without a movement pushing on the Republicans in Congress who are still going to be there blocking the next President’s agenda. This has to be a movement in perpetuity.
Briahna Joy Gray: That fact alone is why I’m here. I’d-
Jon Favreau: Yeah.
Briahna Joy Gray: That fact alone is why I believe as much as there are other actors in the world that broadly share my politics, but the reason why I chose to leave a job I really loved at The Intercept to come work for the Bernie Sanders campaign is because of that understanding of what it takes to transform this country and that emphasis. And I hope that all voters who have been members of various coalitions, the Obama coalition, the Clinton coalition, can appreciate that as not just a slogan, but as core to a political project.
When people talk about, “Can Bernie get things done? What is he going to accomplish? How is he going to do it?” And they want to talk about packing the court and stuff like that, that the coalition itself and “not me, us” is perhaps the most important political tool that we have. And when people ask, “How are we going to win?,” and they want to talk about polls, I want to talk about 2 million individual donations, a record for presidential campaigns at this point. The number of donations and the amount of people that are showing up to rallies and the people who are joining our house parties and things like that, those are people on the ground, people who have been inspired by Bernie Sanders, advocating for a $15 dollar minimum wage at Amazon, at Wal-Mart. Most of our donors, the most common employer of our donors is Wal-Mart, and that’s something that we’re very proud of. And I hope that that translates into broader audiences who, I think, can sometimes perceive that lingo as performative in a way that it’s absolutely not.
Jon Favreau: One of the major forces that we’re battling against is cynicism, is a deep cynicism about politics, about government, and I, it’s funny, I did The Wilderness, this podcast about the Democratic party, I did focus groups with Obama Trump voters in Michigan, but then I did a focus group with Obama voters who then either voted for third party or stayed at home in Texas, and as you can imagine, that focus group was younger, more in their 20s, people of color, women, and they definitely share progressive views and progressive values, but the reason that they’re not, they don’t want to be involved in politics is not, it’s not even ideological, right. A lot of them are just so cynical that anything good could ever happen.
And so, getting them involved is not necessarily like, “Well my position… Do you like Medicare for All or do you like this or that?” I think they’re willing to listen to us on all these issues and they’re probably more likely to be with us on these issues, but you’ve got to get past this barrier of them just thinking that politics is bullshit, that it’s never going to matter, that we’re never going to get anything done, and that’s a real challenge to reach those voters. And I think we’ve seen some candidates can do that, like Bernie can clearly… some of them were Bernie supporters in the primary, but some of them were just like, “No, I liked Obama because he was really inspiring to me, but I still like him, but nothing really got done and now I just think no one’s listening to me and I don’t want to be part of politics anymore.”
Briahna Joy Gray: I agree that that cynicism is our biggest enemy, perhaps bigger than Trump, and I think that’s part of why there’s frustration when you have candidates coming in, when we’ve moved the Overton window, who say, “Oh actually, we don’t even have to go that far.” And I think that that cynicism didn’t come out of nowhere, it was kind of designed. We’ve been told for a long time that we couldn’t have nice things. We talked about this when we first started our conversation, when the world starts to shift to the left or shift away from center, that people can start to feel left behind, and suddenly if all of these things are possible, what does that mean about me? Psychologically, I think about this a lot, what does that mean about me to have been fighting for incrementalism-
Jon Favreau: Yeah.
Briahna Joy Gray: Or a more moderate stance for all of these years, when I could’ve been asking for more, and for me to admit that things could’ve been better is somehow and, in some ways, an indictment of self. And I’m really fascinated by that psychology. AOC, in an interview I did with her in March, called it like, “The golden gate of retreat,” giving people a graceful way to say, “Hey actually, this is your movement too and we were all confused. We had all been like red pilled, and now it’s time to take the blinders off.”
Jon Favreau: So a great example of that, I just thought about it because of AOC is that funny fucking Onion story where they were like, “Oh New Jersey congressman Bill Pascrell wants to be a member of The Squad,” and he tweets something funny like, “Yeah, I’d love to join,” and AOC tweets back, “We’d love to have you as a member of The Squad.” I do think there’s something to be, because so much of what we all talk about everyday as activists is substance, policy, building movements, stuff like that, but there is this sort of political in a small p way that is just sort of like reaching out to people and saying, “Come along with us, and if you haven’t been with us before, that’s okay. It’s not a big deal. We’ve all had different views, but we’re trying to come together now because there’s something, it’s not just about Trump, it’s about something bigger. It’s about our democracy and we want you as part of our movement.”
I thought Bernie’s America ad last time around in 2016, it was a very powerful ad because it sort of evokes these feelings of patriotism in sort of the best sense of the word and sort of the progressive sense of the word, but it was inviting. It made you want to be part of it. And I think that’s really important to building any kind of movement.
Briahna Joy Gray: I so appreciate you taking the time to talk to me today. I’ve been wanting to do this forever, and you have to know, there’s an open door. Please come back any time.
Jon Favreau: I will do so and thank you for having me, and we’ll have to get you guys on Pod Save America so we can chat more.
Briahna Joy Gray: Would love that, absolutely.
I think these types of conversations are really important and revealing. Yes, we have broadly shared values. But there are real differences between our world views. Those of us who occupy the left tend to see disputes less as interpersonal battles than as the natural result of competing interests. Folks don’t reject Medicare for All because they’re bad people per se, but because they’re literally paid by the insurance or pharmaceutical industries to zip in those interests. Joe Lieberman who you’ll remember shot down the public option wasn’t just a rogue actor having a bad day. In the 2010 cycle, when Obama was marshaling votes for the ACA, Lieberman’s number one campaign contributor was Purdue Pharma, number eight was Aetna, the insurance company, and among the top 20 are several other banks and chemical manufacturers who do big business with big pharma. Senators who voted against drug imports in 2007 and 2009 took more money from pharmaceutical companies, and that included Joe Lieberman.
This is a pattern that’s repeated over and over again in American politics, and it explains what’s going on in a way that’s much more satisfying to me, at least, than simply thinking in terms of good guys and bad guys. Even good guys take bad positions if they think it’s what’s required to stay alive politically. This is why campaign finance reform and pledges not to take money from big oil and big insurance matters so much to the Bernie campaign, and why we’re so proud of our support from Wal-Mart workers, teachers, and other folks giving in $19-dollar increments. Who funds you affects your message. It’s as simple as that. If I can ask one thing of voters considering candidates in 2020, it would be that they prioritize candidates purely by who funded them. If we did that alone, I believe we’d have a much more democratic, a much more progressive country.
I think seeing the world in terms of these competing interests is actually less cynical than the alternative. It helps move the conversation away from personal attacks that implicate the judgment of voters and the character of politicians, and places the onus where it should lie, on the financial integrity of our political system.
I hope to be able to talk to Jon more about this point and the horse race more generally sometime soon, because I found this conversation to be invaluable. But that’s it for now. Let us know what you think at [email protected] Or send us a tweet with the hashtag #HeartheBern. If you haven’t already, please, please, please take a moment to rate, review or like us on Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud or wherever you’re listening. Doing so really helps other ears get on this podcast, which we think is important. As always, transcripts will be up soon. ‘Til next time.