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Rep. Dingell On Democrats' Debate And Swing Voters In Michigan


Ten more Democratic candidates for president will take the stage in Detroit tonight for a second round of a debate. We'll have to see if the broad themes are similar to last night's first round, when the candidates really sparred over the direction of the party. There were clear policy differences between moderates and progressives, especially on health care. Centrist candidates took aim at Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren for their embrace of "Medicare for All." Here's former Congressman John Delaney and Elizabeth Warren.


JOHN DELANEY: We can give everyone health care and allow people to have a choice. That's the American way.

JAKE TAPPER: Thank you, congressman. Senator Warren?

ELIZABETH WARREN: So look - let's be clear about this. We are the Democrats. We are not about trying to take away health care from anyone. That's what the Republicans are trying to do.


GREENE: NPR's Asma Khalid was at the debate in Detroit and joins us now on the line from there. Asma, good morning.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So help us explain this difference over health care a bit more if you can.

KHALID: Sure, sure. And what you actually heard Elizabeth Warren referring to there was a critique that a number of the more centrist, moderate candidates made around the idea that Medicare for All would in some ways rip apart the current system we have, and it would destroy the Affordable Care Act. And what you have is you have someone like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren saying, you know, no, no, and essentially what we're trying to do is we're trying to expand the current system.

And what it really comes down to is this idea of, do we want to expand the system by offering folks a public option that everyone can buy into or do we want to completely get rid of private insurance and have a Medicare for All system? And we heard, I would say, some of this debate really, really clearly between Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressman Tim Ryan from Ohio.


BERNIE SANDERS: Medicare for All is comprehensive. It covers all health care needs for senior citizens. It will finally include dental care, hearing aids and eyeglasses.

TIM RYAN: But you don't know that.

SANDERS: Second of all...

RYAN: You don't know that, Bernie.

SANDERS: Second of all...

TAPPER: We'll come to you in a second, congressman.

SANDERS: I do know, and I wrote the damn bill.


GREENE: Quite a moment (laughter). So Asma, was it so important for these candidates to try and distinguish themselves on this issue?

KHALID: You know, health care, I think, is one part of this conversation, but we saw a lot of the moderates trying to punch back against specifically Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren because they and some of these progressive ideas have been dominating the conversation, and they feel that they are not general election winnable ideas, and they feel like this could be toxic. I think there was a line where the former governor of Colorado John Hickenlooper said, you know, if you do this, you'll basically FedEx the election to Donald Trump.

GREENE: Asma, stay with me if you can. I want to bring in another guest now, a guest who can really speak to the location of these debates, which is really notable. In the state of Michigan, President Trump eked out a victory over Hillary Clinton by fewer than 11,000 votes in 2016. Congresswoman Debbie Dingell is a Michigan Democrat. She's also co-chair of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. Congresswoman, thanks for coming back on the program this morning.

DEBBIE DINGELL: It's great to be with you this morning, Dave.

GREENE: So Asma was just talking about the question of whether something like Medicare for All is a winnable message in a general election. Is it in the state of Michigan?

DINGELL: So first of all, I think it's how you talk about it. You have to remember who you're talking to when you're talking to me. I am co-chair of the Medicare for All caucus in the House of Representatives, the sponsor - the lead sponsor of the bill in the House. And I want you to remember sort of my family legacy. My father-in-law was the sponsor of Social Security, and John Dingell introduced universal health care. His father was the first person to introduce universal health care legislation in the early '40s. He did it every year until we got the Affordable Care Act. And he was sitting in the chair when Medicare passed.

You're not going to get to where you need to go if you don't have a vision. I think people need to - it's a very complicated subject. I used to think that I knew health care because I've always been an advocate for it in different ways. But until you become a caregiver and you are actually living in the broken, fragmented system, you don't totally understand all that you're talking about. But I think that - I think we can get there. We have - you're not going to get there if you don't have the vision. You need to bring all the stakeholders to the table.

But right now people - if you're home like I am - I'm talking to people. They are paying higher premiums. Their deductibles are sky-high. Their medicine's too expensive. We need to do something.

GREENE: Well, what is it that people want to be done? I mean, as you talk to these voters and particularly as you talk to the swing voters who really turned the election in your state, like, what do they want right now for them and their families?

DINGELL: They want lower deductibles. They want to be able to afford their medicine. And they want to be able to go to the doctor when they need to go to the doctor. You know...

GREENE: Do they think Medicare for All will do those things? I mean...

DINGELL: Well, I think...

GREENE: Do they find messages like the one we're hearing from Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders appealing?

DINGELL: Well, I think it's who's talking about it and how you're talking about it. I think that the people that are trying to use scare tactics - we know that this President tries to call it socialism. You know, those are all the words that they used before we got Social Security, and those were the same. I went back and read the whole debate on Social Security and read the whole debate on Medicare. What we got to do is talk the facts.

You know, the fact of the matter is that if you lived in the state of Michigan in 2008, the OEMs - which is the car companies GM, Ford and Chrysler - had become health care providers but built cars on the site. If you are a salaried employee at the autos right now, when you began working, like I did, you thought that you'd have health care your entire life.

Now the fact of the matter is, on the salaried side, you lose health care at 65. You don't have it. You have to go out and buy your own supplemental insurance. The UAW has endorsed the Medicare for All bill that we've introduced in the House because they know how this is breaking the backs of companies.

GREENE: Then what do you make of the criticism? What do you make of these other candidates basically suggesting that what you're hearing from some of the more progressive candidates is - you know, in one message we heard FedExing the election to Donald Trump.

DINGELL: I think that we have to talk about it in very - people need to understand it to talk about it. And we're not going to get there overnight. We're certainly not going to get there with President Trump in the White House. But we do need to continue to build on the Affordable Care Act. It took 20 years to get Medicare, then we got children's health insurance, then we got the Affordable Care Act. It's not perfect for everybody. We've got to keep building those building blocks so that every American has health insurance.

I believe that every American's got a right to quality, affordable health care. We're the only industrialized nation in the world that doesn't do it. It's - I'll tell you something else - it's a competitive issue. Our businesses are competing in a global marketplace, and none of the other companies have to worry about health care costs.

GREENE: Debbie Dingell is a Democratic congresswoman from the state of Michigan. Congresswoman, thanks so much for your time, especially after what I'm sure was a late night.

DINGELL: You know, I've talked about this forever, so thank you for having me on.

GREENE: (Laughter) All right, we'll have you back on soon. Thanks a lot.

DINGELL: Thank you.

GREENE: I want to turn back to NPR's Asma Khalid who was listening in. And Asma, I guess I wonder, like, as I asked the questions to Congresswoman Dingell there and we talk about this divide over the direction of the Democratic Party, are we just talking about it on the air and when we hear from candidates or are voters actually thinking about this - you know, this philosophical debate over the future of the party?

KHALID: Yes, David, I would say it's very much something I hear on the campaign trail. I mean, maybe not in the same terms, right? We don't hear people saying, well, I want this candidate because he's progressive or moderate. But depending on where you are, these are the very conversations that folks are having because they want somebody who will win, who will - somebody who will defeat Donald Trump.

And so say you're at, you know, a progressive Netroots Nation - they don't think Joe Biden is electable. Say you're at the NAACP - they feel that Joe Biden is perhaps the most electable candidate. And so this all comes down to whether or not they think that this is going to be a base election or an election where we try to persuade folks.

GREENE: And there's a lot of time left. NPR's Asma Khalid. Thanks so much.

KHALID: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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