As Medicare for All emerges as a litmus test for Democratic presidential candidates, local progressives are pressuring Sen. Gary Peters to support the proposal as he seeks re-election.
Peters got a taste of what may be in store from his party’s left flank at Saturday's state Democratic convention at Cobo Hall, where members of the Progressive Caucus interrupted his speech chanting “Medicare for All.” The interruption came just as Peters was urging party unity.
"[Democrats] are 95 percent together on everything,” he said after allowing the ruckus to pass. “I guarantee you we are completely opposed to every single thing the Republicans are about.”
It was a generous read of that particular room. Peters has staked out a number of positions that are controversial by his own party's standards. Recent highlights include breaking with the majority of his Democratic colleagues to co-sponsor a bank deregulation bill, and co-sponsoring legislation to criminalize the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement against Israel (he’s since softened his position).
But perhaps no issue has divided the Democratic Party more in recent years than the debate over health care. The left flank of the party advocates for eliminating private insurance and replacing it with a single-payer model where coverage is not tied to employment, but guaranteed to everyone. Many moderate Democrats, meanwhile, say they want to see everyone insured, but consider a plan like Medicare for All to be too costly. Under the bill proposed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, federal health care spending would increase by an estimated $2.5 trillion a year, though possible tax hikes would at least be partially offset by the elimination of premiums, copays, and deductibles.
Peters belongs in the moderate Dem camp. He's said he supports shoring up the Affordable Care Act and has co-sponsored a bill introduced by Sen. Debbie Stabenow to lower the age of Medicare eligibility to 55. Though Peters says he supports creating a "path” to universal health coverage, he views Medicare for All as a far off goal that could be feasible “maybe in five to ten years.” Peters' office did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.
Though at least a third of Democratic senators support Sanders' bill, Peters' hesitancy to embrace single-payer is not surprising. He's is just one of two Democratic Senators seeking re-election in 2020 in a state won by Trump, and national Republicans will likely pour money into trying to flip his seat. Supporting Medicare for All could jeopardize his appeal in the high-income, high-voting suburban areas that propelled Democrats to victory in the midterms. The New York Times reports the issue doesn't poll well in those places. It’s worth noting too that Peters is likely focused on padding his campaign coffers going into 2020, and Blue Cross Blue Shield — Michigan’s largest health insurer — is his third-biggest donor.
But former Progressive Caucus chair Kelly Collison argues that Peters can win without corporate cash and appeals to the political center by staking out bold positions that engage apathetic voters.
“All you have to do is be a good person and people will start voting for you,” she said. “Bernie Sanders ignited so many people new to the system. If we can get a senator in Michigan who will fight for our values, we would have a truly blue state again; it's only purple because so many people stopped voting.”
Currently, Peters is running unopposed. But the Progressive Caucus has not ruled out recruiting a candidate to run against him should he fail to evolve his positions, newly elected chair Tanya Reza said Monday.
The caucus has emerged as a small but mighty force in state politics in wake of Sanders' run for president in 2016. The group, which Reza says has about 500 members, is believed to have helped Attorney General Dana Nessel overcome powerful union opposition to defeat primary rival Pat Miles, an Obama appointee.
The progressives also known for being unwavering in their positions and willing to shake things up. At last year's spring nominating convention, they booed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Shri Thanedar out of their meeting room after the millionaire was reported to have considered running as a Republican.