Trying to push universal medical coverage to the top of the ’08 agenda, the country’s largest healthcare union, SEIU, summoned the candidates to a Sin City forum on the issue on March 24. And all of the Democratic contenders except Senator Joseph Biden showed up, not only to present their respective plans but also to court the crucial union vote.
The endorsement of organized labor, a powerful and growing force in Nevada politics, will be central to any Democratic candidate wishing to carry the state. With the January 19 Nevada primary coming second in the country–only five days after the kick-off Iowa caucuses–winning here could fuel momentum going into the mega-Super Tuesday of February 5, when Californians and as much as half the rest of the country will be voting.
The seven Democratic contenders who appeared before the crowd of 1,000 union activists and students at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, all vowed to provide affordable universal coverage if elected, but only former North Carolina Senator John Edwards presented a plan with any significant details. “One of the reasons that I want to be President of the United States is to make sure that every woman and every person in America gets the same kind of things that we have,” Edwards said, referring to the recent announcement that his wife, Elizabeth, will be in cancer treatment for the rest of her life. Edwards was also the only candidate who unflinchingly supported a tax increase, which he said would be necessary to pay the $90-120 billion per year price tag on his plan. Anybody saying otherwise, he said, is likely trying to sell the voters “a bridge in Brooklyn.” He proposed reaping that revenue by reversing the Bush Administration tax cuts for the wealthy. And in a moment that drew some of the loudest applause, Edwards challenged his rivals to be equally forthright: “I think the [next] President needs to be honest and that starts here.”
Senator Hillary Clinton made an unusually spirited presentation, though one that was less specific than Edwards’s, and she has not accepted the idea of raising taxes. She put her emphasis on legislation she is sponsoring that would prohibit discrimination against policyholders who have previous medical conditions. Senator Barack Obama, whose insurgent campaign has suffered from accusations of dealing too much in platitudes, came surprisingly unarmed with a specific plan. He insisted it was political leadership that counted, not a blueprint. “Every four years, somebody trots out a healthcare plan,” he said. “The question is: Do we have the political will and sense of urgency to actually get it done? I want to be held accountable to get it done.”
Despite differences in the Democrats’ financing approaches, their unified vow to achieve universal coverage was sweet music to the ears of the forum organizers. The 1.8 million-member SEIU is the country’s wealthiest PAC, and it makes no secret of wanting to use its clout to make universal healthcare central to the ’08 campaign. “So far there’s been lots of glitz and glamour and talk of Hollywood fundraisers,” SEIU president Andy Stern said in an interview. “We intend to make this campaign about real issues.”