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The Effects Medicare For All Has Had On Elizabeth Warren's Campaign


And now to the election on this side of the Atlantic. So far, "Medicare for All" has been the issue of the Democratic primary. In recent months, it has come to define the campaign of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. And as it's become a bigger and bigger part of her platform, she's lost support from Democratic voters. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben looks at why.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: In Elizabeth Warren's speech announcing her presidential campaign, health care came up just a couple of times in passing. Instead, this was the heart of her message.


ELIZABETH WARREN: When government works only for the wealthy and the well-connected, that is corruption, plain and simple.

KURTZLEBEN: But then health care became the central debate in the early part of the primary campaign. And as of a CNN town hall in March, she was noncommittal on Medicare for All, despite co-sponsoring Senator Bernie Sanders' single-payer bill.


WARREN: I think we get everybody together.

KURTZLEBEN: By the time of the first primary debates in June, she was firmly behind it.


WARREN: So yes, I'm with Bernie on Medicare for All. And let me tell you why.

KURTZLEBEN: Warren gained ground during this period as the woman with a plan for everything. So Warren faced a new question, pressed most consistently by South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.


PETE BUTTIGIEG: Your signature, senator, is to have a plan for everything except this.

KURTZLEBEN: That was from an October debate hosted by CNN. When asked about whether she'd raise taxes on the middle class to pay for the plan, Warren responded that costs wouldn't go up, a move her opponents cast as evasive. By the time she released her proposal to pay for it, her poll numbers were sliding. And that trend continued.

Adam Green is a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has endorsed Warren. He believes that Buttigieg's attacks worked. He spoke to NPR via Skype.

ADAM GREEN: Pete Buttigieg has used insurance industry talking points to scare progressive - scared electability voters into having self-doubt.

KURTZLEBEN: Here's how Buttigieg responded to that charge on ABC.


BUTTIGIEG: Well, the insurance companies are fighting my proposal because they don't want the competition. What is just not true is that hers is the only solution.

KURTZLEBEN: Buttigieg supports a public option. Health insurance lobbyists have run ads against Warren's plan and his. It's not just that attacks from opponents hurt Warren, according to Chris Jennings, who served as a health care adviser to Presidents Clinton and Obama.

CHRIS JENNINGS: I think she created a box for which she could not escape.

KURTZLEBEN: Jennings says that voters' perception of Warren was shaken by the fact that Warren said she wouldn't raise costs for middle-class families but then also didn't have a plan at the ready.

JENNINGS: That actually was very, very different from virtually all other elements of the Warren campaign, which I think were very clearly enunciated in terms of policy, vision and financing mechanisms and not even a hesitation to respond to any critique - in fact, almost a welcome embrace of those fights. This one felt a bit more like she was on the defensive.

KURTZLEBEN: But on the campaign trail, Warren's message is close to what it's been from the beginning. At a recent New Hampshire town hall, health barely featured in her stump speech, though she does get asked about it. One voter I talked to who had questions was Jonathan Queen.

JONATHAN QUEEN: I'm not sure that I'm on board with Medicare for All.

KURTZLEBEN: Queen is from Mauldin, S.C., but he happened to be nearby in Boston for follow-ups to treatments for esophageal cancer. He was diagnosed eight years ago.

QUEEN: I'm alive because of a drug-sponsored clinical trial. That is also extremely important. We need to find a balance between reasonable drug prices and maintaining profit motive to spur innovation and bring those types of things forward.

KURTZLEBEN: Queen got to ask Warren about this. She said she wants to boost funding for government medical research and improve the FDA approval process. Even given Queen's doubts about Medicare for All, Warren is his first choice.

Voters like Nancy Lindberg are less sure. Standing in line for a photo with Warren, she said she's also considering Buttigieg and that health care is her top issue.

NANCY LINDBERG: I support universal health care. I'm still bending toward the side of, we already have the ACA. Can that be improved upon? Do we have to throw that out to start all over again?

KURTZLEBEN: And that's the kind of voter Warren is targeting. Nearly two-thirds of Democrats say they haven't chosen a candidate yet or that their minds might still change.

Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF YMORI'S "WEEKDAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.