“You’ve heard me say once or twice that I don’t think the media does a particularly good job covering the issues that matter to working people,” Sanders told The Washington Post a few days before the debate. “I think what happens in presidential campaigns with a series of debates, is good — but there’s no reason that those debates can’t happen 12 months a year.”
Indeed, had a few primaries broken a different way, CNN’s special could have been a presidential debate. In February 2017, it turned into a heated, personal and wonkish argument between two men whose perspectives were not universally accepted in their caucuses. Sanders favors the replacement of America’s kludgy health-care system with European-style single payer, often calling it “Medicare for all.” Cruz favors immediate repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which Republican leaders are struggling to pull off.
But some of the debate’s most striking moments came over rhetoric and spin — not policy. Sanders conceded from the outset that the ACA was not perfect. “Nobody believes that it is,” he said. Cruz, in calling it a disaster, attempted to trap Sanders by saying the ACA had doubled insurance company profits.
“I find myself in agreement with Ted,” said Sanders. “He’s right. The function of insurance companies is not to provide quality health care to all people. It’s to make as much money as they possibly can. Ted, let’s work together on a Medicare for all, single-payer program, so we’re finally going to get insurance companies, private insurance companies out of our lives.”
Cruz pivoted, saying that an overzealous Food and Drug Administration was being stingy about approvals and that Democrats were misleading when they said that Republicans would put current health insurance customers out in the cold. But Sanders took another opportunity when Cruz said that, under the Republican reform, no one would see a “canceled” plan over a preexisting condition.
“Bernie, it’s easy to say to people, gosh, you’re going to lose your coverage,” said Cruz. “What do the Democrats say to the 6 million people who had their health insurance canceled?”
“Ted, Ted, you’re a good lawyer, and you use words well,” Sanders replied. “What you just said is ‘cancel your insurance.’ Cancel your insurance, okay? That’s good. But what happens if tomorrow you wake up and you go to the doctor and you discover that you have cancer? All right? You just discovered it. And the insurance companies say, hey, you’re not a good deal for us, we can’t make money off of you, you will not get that health insurance?”
In similar debates, Democrats might have resisted hearing their ideals compared to the ones in Europe. Sanders felt no such angst, rattling off the names of wealthy Scandinavian countries when Cruz insisted that socialism would drive people into poverty. Cruz, meanwhile, referred to notes from his lectern to tell horror stories from Britain’s National Health Service.
“In a hospital in Essex, doctors twice canceled a lifesaving — potential lifesaving surgery for a patient with esophageal cancer, because there were no free beds in the intensive care unit,” Cruz said. “In Wales, an 82-year-old woman who had fallen waited eight hours on the floor before an ambulance arrived. Her daughter sat beside her in the ordeal, described it as one of the longest nights of her life. This is what happens when government takes over health care — every example on Earth — the result is rationing and waiting periods, and you, the citizens, being told, no, you can’t have the health care you want and deserve.”
“In America, we do rationing in a different way, Ted — the way we do rationing is, if you are very rich, you can get the best health care in the world,” Sanders replied. “But if you are working-class, you are going to be having a very difficult time affording the outrageous cost of health care … and others end up in the hospital at outrageous costs for illnesses that could have been treated initially at far less cost. So please, don’t tell me about rationing. This country has more rationing than any other industrialized country on Earth, except the rationing is done by income. And working-class people and poor people today are suffering as a result of that rationing.”