Cory Booker controversy: Booker has a confusing answer on health care

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) was ready to take a victory lap during a press conference with reporters outside of his home in Newark, New Jersey, on Friday, hours after announcing his bid for the White House, but he accidentally created a firestorm on health care.

Booker, who signed on to Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-VT) Medicare-for-all plan, a sort of litmus test for progressives, was asked by a reporter on Friday whether he would “do away with private health care.”

His response: “Even countries that have vast access to publicly offered health care still have private health care, so no.”

The comments kicked off controversy among some on the left, many of whom wondered whether what Booker was actually saying was that he wanted to keep the private health insurance industry around, not the health care industry. Did he mean he would keep private insurance or private care?

Progressives, especially those who back Sanders, have been skeptical of Booker’s progressive beliefs and doubted his commitment to Medicare-for-all. Booker’s campaign did not immediately return a request for comment on what he meant.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), another Democratic 2020 contender, was faced with a similar issue this week. In a CNN town hall, she was asked about the private insurance industry. “Let’s eliminate all of that,” she responded. “Let’s move on.”

Her campaign subsequently softened her stance and noted that she also supports more moderate plans on health care reform. “Medicare-for-all is the plan that she believes will solve the problem and get all Americans covered. Period,” Harris’s press secretary, Ian Sams, told CNN. “She has co-sponsored other pieces of legislation that she sees as a path to getting us there, but this is the plan she is running on.”

As Vox’s Dylan Scott notes, supporting Medicare-for-all can be a tricky issue for Democrats when it comes to acknowledging the implications:

True single-payer would mean the end of private insurance. The left wants America to catch up with most of the developed world, where health insurance is more or less a right of citizenship and costs are still lower, and they think the best, simplest way to do it is to put everybody into one national health care plan.

Still, Booker is right, most places with national health insurance programs do still have private health care and many such countries still allow private insurers to operate. There are two-tiered heath care systems in the United Kingdom and other developed countries. This is one of many debates sure to pop up in the 2020 Democratic primary.

Booker says he wants to keep the filibuster — which could stand in the way of a true Medicare-for-all system

Even if Democrats win the White House in 2020, hold the House of Representatives, and wind up with a majority in the Senate (a long shot), they’ll have the filibuster to deal with. Most major Senate bills need 60 votes in the Senate to advance. The prospect of a 60-Democrat majority in the Senate in the near future seems like a near impossibility, meaning that if Democrats want to get ambitious legislation — such as Medicare-for-all — passed, they’ll have to get rid of the Senate filibuster. The thing is, a lot of them don’t want to. Including Booker.

The New Jersey senator told Politico earlier this week that he disagreed with getting rid of the filibuster (a maneuver that would mean legislation would only need a simple majority to get passed). And on Friday, he stood by his stance.

“The filibuster is a decision that’s made in the Senate,” he said. “My colleagues and I, everybody I’ve talked to, believes that the legislative filibuster should stay there and I will personally resist efforts to get rid of it.”

He’s not the only 2020 Democrat facing that question. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) sidestepped the issue in a recent interview with Pod Save America’s Jon Favreau and told Politico this week she was weighing “all the pros and cons.” Sanders told the outlet the filibuster question was “not for today,” because “first of all we’ve got to take back [power].” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) told Politico that “everything stays on the table.”

Vox’s Ezra Klein has explained why the filibuster issue matters:

While it’s possible to imagine a Medicare-for-more bill making it through budget reconciliation, if Democrats want to do something as complex as reconstructing the American health care system, they’re going to need to be able to write legislation in a simple, straightforward way.

That means that Democrats either need to get rid of the filibuster, which they can do with 51 votes, or they need to repeatedly overrule parliamentary challenges to their reconciliation bill, which is pretty much the same thing.

Booker, of the group, appears to have had among the most definitive answers on the issue so far: He wants to keep the filibuster, and he’s sticking to it. It was a theme throughout his session with reporters on Friday.

Booker still wants to be a progressive

He stood by his record on supporting charter schools, pledging to run the “boldest pro-public … school campaign there is” but also saying he doesn’t believe in a “one-size-fits-all” education. “I’m proud of my record, it’s not anything I need to defend,” he said.

He also shot down criticism that he’s too close to banks and corporate America. “When it comes to defending folk, I will be ferocious,” he said.

At the end of the day, Booker’s case seems to be you’ll either like him or you won’t, including when it comes to his positions on health care, the filibuster, and all the rest.

“I’m running for president because I believe in us, I believe in these values, I’m going to put them before the American people,” Booker said. “Hey, and if that’s not what they want, then I won’t be the next president of the United States.”

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