Last week, watching the 2020 Democrats spar over climate change, I thought of 2008, and the early fight over health-care reform. Eleven years ago, the high-stakes Democratic primary was descending into acrimony, and one of America’s most prominent left-wing pundits took a side.

Citing a new study by “one of America’s leading health care economists,” the pundit wrote: “If Ms. Clinton gets the Democratic nomination, there is some chance—nobody knows how big—that we’ll get universal health care in the next administration. If Mr. Obama gets the nomination, it just won’t happen.”

Citing a new study by “one of America’s leading health care economists,” the pundit wrote: “If Ms. Clinton gets the Democratic nomination, there is some chance—nobody knows how big—that we’ll get universal health care in the next administration. If Mr. Obama gets the nomination, it just won’t happen.”

Clinton, the dreamy radical; Obama, the realist reformer? That quote appeared in a New York Times column by Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize–winning economist. Though his analysis might seem backwards now, he believed it was Senator Hillary Clinton’s plan that could make universal health care possible. Senator Barack Obama’s proposal, meanwhile, seemed to dash progressive hopes.

This is not exactly how most Americans remember the 2008 election—and it is not necessarily how the election was seen at the time. But it reveals how preliminary our national understanding of health-care reform was in 2008, how little the chattering class understood the challenge of changing the system.

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