Sen. Elizabeth

Warren is a person of uncommon intelligence. But like all of us mortals, she sometimes makes mistakes.

Take, for example,

the Massachusetts Democrat’s embarrassing retreat on “Medicare for All.” Please.

After weeks of being pressured to show some details as to how she would expand Medicare to cover all Americans and not just seniors, she announced a promise to enact Medicare for All by (drumroll, please) the end of the third year of her presidency.

That’s another way of saying “never.” Talk about kicking the can down the road. She just blasted it out of a bazooka.

History tells us that presidents need to enact their biggest promises as soon as possible, before the new administration loses legislative momentum. The third year, which follows midterm elections with possible setbacks, might as well be in another universe.

Remember, for example, how President Barack Obama and his congressional allies introduced his far-less-ambitious Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, in 2009 and barely got it passed in March of his second year in office, before the 2010 midterms?

And that’s not counting numerous amendments and court fights that continued into the administration of President Donald Trump, who failed in repeated attempts to repeal Obamacare as its popularity grew.

By the 2018 midterms, Republicans had changed their earlier mantra from “repeal” to “repeal and replace,” yet never came up with a replacement bill that a consensus of their own caucus, let alone Democrats, could agree on.

Nancy Pelosi became speaker of the House again thanks to a new Democratic majority that had made a central issue of protecting coverage for preexisting conditions. The growing popularity of Obamacare as more Americans learned what actually was in it emboldened Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and other Democratic presidential candidates to push further, this time for expanding Medicare to cover everybody.

I supported that goal, and I still do. But I also support math. If the affordability numbers don’t add up, it’s time to go back to the computers and calculators.

That’s where Warren and most Democrats in the early stage of the 2020 campaign hit major potholes. Warren eagerly endorsed Sanders’ signature Medicare for All proposal, but both faced a backlash over their promise to eliminate all private health insurance.

They lost me there, too. Like many other Americans, I have complaints about my health insurance plan. But I’d rather decide on my own whether I’d prefer a government plan. I don’t want that choice taken away from me. The same is true for Detroit autoworkers, to name one very important Democratic constituency, who labored and negotiated hard over the years for their insurance benefits.

Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, showed a hostility to the insurance industry in debates that plays right into the quip popularized by Ronald Reagan: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”

Democratic contender Pete Buttigieg comes closer to the right idea, in my view. He calls it “Medicare for All Who Want It.” Conservatives don’t want it, but they’re not likely to vote for Mayor Pete anyway.

However, there appear to be enough Iowans who want it that Buttigieg jumped out to a commanding lead in the Des Moines Register and CNN poll of Iowa Democratic caucusgoers that was released earlier this month. His 25% showing was a leap from his 9% in the Register’s September poll and a healthy move ahead of Warren at 16%, and Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden, the earlier front-runner, at 15%.

Sen. Kamala Harris, falling back to 3% since her high point after the first Democratic debate, briefly joined Sanders’ and Warren’s call for ending private health insurance but soon backed away. Instead she presented a plan of her own that would save private insurance under new rules — contrary to a Sanders bill she co-sponsored earlier in the Senate that would have eliminated the private insurers.

Warren appears to be learning a similar lesson. She knows banking reform, among other policy issues, better than she knows campaign politics. We saw that in the way she let backlash over her claims to some modest Native American heritage lead her to take a DNA test, which showed so little related ancestry that it became an even bigger embarrassment.

Fortunately for her, it’s still early in the 2020 cycle. We have not even seen actual votes cast. There’s still time for Warren and the rest of the lineup to learn what Obama and other party moderates have

advised: This is a country that is “less revolutionary than it is interested in improvement.”

If President Trump has left plenty to be improved, as Democrats say, they should take advantage of his shortcomings, not create new problems for themselves.

Recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in 1989, Page is a Chicago Tribune columnist and Editorial Board member. He entered the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame in 1992. His email address is cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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