OPINION: The ‘radical liberal Raphael Warnock’ we were warned about has not materialized

 U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock speaks during a town hall meeting at the Maloof Auditorium in Decatur Friday, February 4, 2022. 

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U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock speaks during a town hall meeting at the Maloof Auditorium in Decatur Friday, February 4, 2022. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

The moment that the 2021 Senate runoff campaign really jumped the shark came during the only debate between then-U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and now-U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock.

By then Republicans had developed a strategy to convince voters that Warnock — at the time an untested first-time candidate — was a radical, liberal Marxist sympathizer, someone so fundamentally different from most Georgians that voters could never trust him.

Loeffler executed on that strategy so relentlessly during the debate that she called him “radical, liberal Raphael Warnock” more than a dozen times and ended up as a spoof on “Late Night with Seth Myers.”

Warnock won the election of course. But the senator voters were warned he would morph into — literally a screaming, anti-Semitic, Castro-loving, crazed communist, has never materialized.

Instead, Warnock has become a reliable vote for Senate Democrats, a meticulously tailored, high-profile progressive at the mainstream of his party who still looks for bipartisan measures to join when he can. Recently, the Ebenezer pastor has also introduced or joined a series of bills to address pocketbook issues, like the price of gas, medicine, and other necessities.

Is that because it’s good election-year politics in a battleground state or because there’s a more pragmatic streak than Warnock was given credit for?

That’s hard to say, but a look at his latest bill to limit out-of-pocket expenses for patients on insulin is a good example of Warnock taking the lead on a significant pocketbook issue that fails to live up to the “radical” election-year hype.

The bill, S. 3700, would cap the price of insulin for diabetes patients at $35 per month. Since the cost wouldn’t just go away, the remaining expense under Warnock’s measure would be covered by the drug companies selling insulin.

Importantly, the bill is targeted at just those already covered by Medicare or through private insurance. “Radical Liberal Raphael Warnock,” the villain from the campaign, might have seized drug companies’ insulin supplies or drawn up a new federal program to make insulin free for all.

Several states, including not-radically-liberal Utah, Kentucky, and West Virginia, already cap the cost of the drug for some patients.

And an investigation by Sens. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican, and Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, found that drug makers who sell insulin used anticompetitive practices to increase revenue and capture market share while doubling or tripling the price of insulin in the process.

“Everybody knows somebody with diabetes. This is not a partisan issue,” Warnock told me in an interview. “It’s a disease. And we have the tools to make sure that people have access to lifesaving care.”

The American Diabetes Association estimates that more than 1 million Georgians live with diabetes, which has a significantly higher rate in minority communities and among people over 65. The ADA also estimates that one out of every four health care dollars goes to treating diabetes or its related effects.

Warnock said the cost of buying insulin, which has more than doubled in recent years, is a challenge he sees his parishioners facing and hears about from constituents. The Warnock Senate mailroom has had hundreds of letters and emails from Georgians looking for help.

“I can tell you as a pastor, I’ve seen up close what happens when this disease is not managed properly,” Warnock said. “I’ve seen the emergence of kidney disease and people forced to go on dialysis. I’ve seen the amputations.”

Leaving people to skip doses because of costs can lead to a spiral of dangerous, and expensive, side effects.

“We help patients to better manage their healthcare and I think we address some of the costs in our larger healthcare ecosystem,” Warnock said. “It’s the right thing to do is the smart thing to do.”

Getting into the weeds of policy is not something that happens in most campaigns, but it does happen occasionally.

Kelvin King, one of the four Republicans running to challenge Warnock, said two of his wife’s grandparents died from the disease, so it’s a personal issue for him.

But he said a proposal like Warnock’s that lets the federal government set the price of insulin would just shift the costs to other areas of healthcare.

“Instead of the Federal Government creating price controls, let’s create competition within the pharmaceutical and health insurance industries and lower the cost of medication through free-market principles,” King suggested.

A spokeswoman for Herschel Walker blamed Warnock and President Joe Biden for inflationary pressures driving up the prices across the economy.

“This is not a coincidence but is a direct result of Democrat policies which have shipped American jobs, manufacturing, and energy overseas, making us reliant on everyone else and causing inflation to skyrocket,” Mallory Blount said, without addressing insulin prices specifically.

Anticipating the criticism of inflation, which has spiked up in recent months, Warnock said the increase in demand for goods coming out of the pandemic, along with alleged price gouging by shippers and others along the supply chain, were a major factor in price increases.

“It requires a multi-tiered approach, but what I’m focused on right now is lowering the costs for ordinary people as we continue to push our way back from the pandemic,” he said.

Whether Warnock’s and the Democrats’ approach to the economy and health care is effective will be a legitimate matter of debate for voters in the 2022 elections.

But simply painting Raphael Warnock as a radical cartoon villain is a debate tactic that’s already been tried and failed.