John Edwards is currently starring in the mainstream media has history’s greatest monster, while serving in progressive circles as an example of media bias—why does a former Senator’s scandalous affair attract more attention than John Ensign’s less-salacious but more-illegal conduct? Fundamentally, though, anyone in the public arena has a bigger impact on the world through his or her impact on the policy process than through impacts on people he or she personally interacted with. And—especially since I work with several veterans of the campaign—I think it’s worth pointing out that an important part of Edwards’ legacy is as one of the primary agents for driving universal health care to the center of the Democratic Party’s agenda.
He was hardly the only one, of course. Key conceptual groundwork was laid by policy thinkers. And below the surface the main issue is that the SEIU was indicating that it wanted candidates with any shot at its endorsement to unveil plans for comprehensive coverage. Repeatedly throughout his campaign, Edwards served as a useful progressive foil. He was never really up there with Clinton and Obama, but he was always close enough that they couldn’t simply ignore the possibility that his efforts to appeal to the base would work. So when Edwards unveiled is four point plan for achieving universal coverage—a plan based on exactly the pillars of ObamaCare—it made a huge difference and swiftly became the benchmark by which Clinton and Obama were judged.
Three years ago, in March of 2007 Karen Tumulty captured the dynamic:
There was no disagreement over the need to fix health care, only over how fast it could be done. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said he could accomplish it in his first year in the White House; New York Senator Clinton said it might take until the end of her second term; everyone else was somewhere in between. There was some dispute over whether reforming the nation’s health-care system would require new taxes. Former North Carolina Senator John Edwards said it would; Richardson said it wouldn’t; others were equivocal. [...]
But while health care for all is now a popular slogan, Edwards is the only candidate offering a plan that would actually get to universal coverage. His proposal is much like a model that is being tried or considered in several states and that includes a combination of features. For example, it requires employers who don’t insure their workers to pay into a fund for the uninsured, and individuals who don’t get coverage from their employers to buy it, and provides subsidies for those who can’t afford the premiums.
The see-saw of the political expectations game is such that by the Spring of 2010 many people had convinced themselves that this approach to health care was a disappointing sellout. But back in the Spring of 2007, it was considered radical—a left-wing idea by the standards of a Democratic presidential primary.
Obviously, Edwards was calling for a public option and the bill that passed the House last night doesn’t include one. But as you can see it’s simply not the case that the public option was the core of Edwards’ idea, it was one of a laundry list of subsidiary items to a plan based on the principles of mandated, subsidized, regulated health insurance. Three years ago, few thought it was politically realistic. Tomorrow, it will be signed into law. But the whole thing easily could have never been taken up if not for the pressure Edwards put on others to shift in his direction.