'Medicare For All' Is Unlikely To Pass, But There Are Other Reasons To Run On It Congress is unlikely to pass ambitious policies like "Medicare for All" or the Green New Deal, even if a Democratic proponent of them were elected. But there are plenty of reasons to run on them.

The Practical Reasons Candidates Talk About Improbable Policies

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Democratic presidential candidates are not just throwing their support behind ambitious policy proposals like "Medicare for All." They're getting into the finer details of how to implement these programs despite the fact that Congress is unlikely to pass them, no matter how next year's elections turn out. So what is the value of these debates for voters? Here's NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Elizabeth Warren introduced one of her presidential campaign's major proposals this week - a plan to cancel $640 billion in student debt. She thanked South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn, who is introducing it on the House side.

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ELIZABETH WARREN: We're not likely to get a vote in the Senate...

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WARREN: ...But have a chance to work it through the House so we can iron out any kinks and get it ready to go.

KURTZLEBEN: But even if Democrats win the White House and hold onto the House and win the Senate, they would still need to find the votes to pass this bill. Some current Democratic lawmakers are skeptical of debt cancellation. Plenty of other campaign trail issues similarly divide Democrats - for example, the Green New Deal, court-packing and Bernie Sanders' Medicare for All proposal.

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BERNIE SANDERS: The time is now to expand Medicare to every man, woman and child in this country.

KURTZLEBEN: All of which raises a tough but basic question - if a policy doesn't appear to have a route to passage, what does debating it even accomplish? Some of it is the long game, according to Lanhee Chen, who was policy director on the 2012 Mitt Romney campaign.

LANHEE CHEN: The campaign does serve the purpose of priming people or helping them to understand the contours of the debate so that when you get to the time that you're actually trying to pass legislation, people have already had exposure to the issues at play.

KURTZLEBEN: So even if a policy like Medicare for All doesn't pass in the next Democratic presidency, talking about it now could lay the groundwork for later or help a less drastic plan pass, like a public option. All of this debate comes at a price, however, says Robert Blendon, professor at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Talking this much about Medicare for All, he says, takes oxygen away from issues that might pass more easily and that are more pressing for voters.

ROBERT BLENDON: They're actually not talking about Medicare for All or a redo of the Affordable Care Act. They're focused on their own pocketbook issues - high drug costs, charges by hospitals and insurance premiums.

KURTZLEBEN: That may be true of voters generally, but many Democratic primary voters are very interested in Medicare for All and argue that it would tackle those very problems. In addition to the substantive debate, putting bold ideas out there can help candidates tell particular stories about themselves, says Jennifer Palmieri, director of communications for Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign.

JENNIFER PALMIERI: It tells voters that you think you get the depth of the problem, and it tells voters that your inclination is to have a very bold solution. And well beyond the policy, that tells voters something about the kind of person you are.

KURTZLEBEN: For example, talking about Medicare for All helps Sanders reinforce that he wants to remake government.

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SANDERS: While we're at it, let's make a political revolution.

KURTZLEBEN: Similarly, Elizabeth Warren's bevy of plans have helped her shape her identity as a serious and progressive policy thinker.

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WARREN: We need big, structural change.

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WARREN: And, yes, I have a plan for that.

KURTZLEBEN: That kind of big, structural change can look politically impossible when Washington is perpetually gridlocked. But then, as Harvard's Blendon explains, a policy could go from impossible to signed law relatively quickly.

BLENDON: John F. Kennedy ran in 1960, and Medicare for retirees was one of his lead issues. He wins, and the leaders from the House and Senate meet with him and tell him it's no way possible.

KURTZLEBEN: But then after Kennedy was assassinated and President Johnson took office, Congress swung left.

BLENDON: Lyndon Johnson meets with the same leaders. And they say, Lyndon, we can pass the Medicare bill. So politics and elections really matter. For a big change to occur, you would have to have a change in the president and their leanings and the Congress. But that happens every now and then.

KURTZLEBEN: Part of what voters are looking for is what a candidate will do if they get that window of opportunity, even if it's not clear how that window will open.

Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.

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