It took me a moment to register what they were talking about.
I was listening to Pod Save America, a wildly popular podcast put together by some of Barack Obama’s former speechwriters. It is, I imagine, what an MSNBC podcast might sound like if Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes were allowed to swear. Liberally. The hosts have taken it upon themselves to interview each of the many candidates who have decided to run for the office of president of the United States in 2020.
Admittedly, I wasn’t listening all that carefully. There is so much righteous anger on both sides of the aisle, it’s hard to take it all in. So when listening to pundits, I try to surf just at the surface, before the wave breaks, trying to avoid the undertow.
But there was that phrase again: table stakes.
As I started to concentrate, and the words came into focus, I finally pieced together the parts of the conversation I had missed.
They were talking about Medicare for all.
Table stakes is actually a gambling term. In movies, we have all seen poker games depicted in which a femme fatale casually lays her diamond bracelet on the table, so the hero can win the hand. In practice, that doesn’t happen. Table stakes is the rule that a gambler can gamble only with the money he put on the table at the beginning of the game. It’s just not practical to play poker with someone who could match any bet by writing checks or pulling out a pink slip. In the Wild West, this rule also prevented players from trying to play with worthless I.O.U.s. If you wanted to play, you had to put your stake on the table to show you were serious. By extension, the table stake is the minimum you need to get into the game.
For Democratic hopefuls, signing on to Medicare for all is the table stake: It’s a central part of the 2020 catechism, the minimum Democratic candidates have to commit to for their candidacy to be taken seriously by party faithful.
It’s interesting to see a proposal that, just a few years ago, was branded as radical and extreme is now seen as mainstream. On Feb. 27, 2019, Rep. Pramila Jayapal introduced the latest iteration of a Medicare for all plan to the floor of the House of Representatives.1 It had 106 co-sponsors. In the Senate, Senators Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren have all supported Bernie Sanders’ single-payer bill, which is a kissing cousin to the Medicare for all plans discussed in the House.
How did we get from there to here?