Buttigieg recently asserted he “never believed” in mandating single payer healthcare. “Only in the last few months did it become the case that Medicare for All was defined by politicians to mean ending private insurance,” he told the Nevada Independent, “and I’ve never believed that that’s the right pathway.”
But the public record suggests that Buttigieg’s position has evolved. In a 2018 Twitter exchange with activists running a democratic socialist outfit called the People’s Summit, these activists challenged Buttigieg to support single payer healthcare and Medicare for All. They specifically cited H.R. 676, the Expanded & Improved Medicare for All Act, that would have created single-payer heathcare and banned private insurance. “Health insurers may not sell health insurance,” it reads in part, “that duplicates the benefits provided under this bill.” This 2017 bill, sponsored by the late John Conyers (D-Mich.), created the current framework for the Medicare for All Debate.
As the conversation continued, Buttigieg framed his support of single payer as a matter of longstanding principle, pointing to a 2004 op ed he’d written at Harvard. Asked by the activists to affirm that “insurance does not belong in healthcare,” Buttigieg playfully turned his support of Medicare For All into an oath:
Gosh! Okay… I, Pete Buttigieg, politician, do henceforth and forthwith declare, most affirmatively and indubitably, unto the ages, that I do favor Medicare for All, as I do favor any measure that would help get all Americans covered. Now if you'll excuse me, potholes await.
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) February 19, 2018
Around the same time, in an interview with “Morning Joe,” Buttigieg portrayed single payer healthcare as a centrist position. He lamented how the Obamacare, which he called a “conservative proposal” came to be painted as a left-wing program. He touted Medicare for All as a “compromise” position — between the pure, corporate, free market healthcare and a British style government-run health system. Medicare for All, he argued, was in the middle, a “single payer system where you have private doctors but a public payer.” He insisted Democrats needed not to properly frame the debate: “We’ve got to stop letting the right move the goalposts.”
But as his campaign has matured, Buttigieg is the one who has been moving those goalposts. He touts a policy he calls “Medicare for All Who Want It”— a version of the public option that was originally proposed with Obamacare. In primary debates, Buttigieg used to say that this policy would put America on a “glide path” to single payer, but has recently sharpened an attack on Sanders and Elizabeth Warren for supporting Medicare for All, denouncing it as a policy that would “unnecessarily divide this country over health care.” In inflammatory language, reminiscent of the right’s rhetoric the subject, Buttigieg has said that Medicare for All would “obliterate” private plans, “kicking 150 million Americans off of their insurance.”
When confronted about this shift, the Buttigeig campaign has refused to acknowledge their candidate has made any change in his position, with a stubbornness that verges on gaslighting. “The only people who think Pete Buttigieg has changed his position on health care have never watched his stump speech or are intentionally distorting his positions because they’re worried about his momentum,” Sean Savett, Buttigieg’s Rapid Response Communications Director, wrote in a combative Twitter thread this week.
In the context of Buttigieg’s tack to the center lane in the Democratic primary, it’s instructive, then, to reread an essay he wrote in 2000, as a high school student, for the JFK Presidential Library’s “Profile in Courage Essay Contest.”
Buttigieg won that competition by writing in praise of the political consistency of a politician who is now his 2020 rival, Bernie Sanders.
Buttigeig began his essay with a lamentation. “Candidates have discovered that is easier to be elected by not offending anyone rather than by impressing the voters,” the young Buttigieg wrote. “Politicians are rushing for the center, careful not to stick their necks out on issues,” Buttigieg added, arguing that this “disturbing trend reveals cynicism” that he called “the greatest threat to the continued success of the American political system.”
Buttigieg then celebrated an avatar of conviction: “There remain a number of committed individuals who are steadfast enough in their beliefs to run for office to benefit their fellow Americans… to eschew political and personal comfort and convenience because they believe they can make a difference,” he wrote. “One outstanding and inspiring example of such integrity is the country’s only Independent Congressman, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders.”
In effusive language, Buttigeig praised Sanders’ “energy, candor, conviction, and ability to bring people together stand against the current of opportunism, moral compromise, and partisanship, which runs rampant on the American political scene.” Buttigieg wrote that Sanders and others like him have the integrity to “win back the faith of a voting public weary and wary of political opportunism.”
Has Buttigeig fallen into the same cynical trap of political opportunism that he identified as a teenager? The voters will have their say on the matter. But it is striking that Sanders, even at 78 years old, continues to inspire the admiration among the youngest participants in our democracy that Buttiegieg identified nearly 20 years ago:
“I commend Bernie Sanders for giving me an answer to those who say American young people see politics as a cesspool of corruption, beyond redemption,” he wrote. “I have heard that no sensible young person today would want to give his or her life to public service. I can personally assure you this is untrue.”