With more than 1 million people watching at home, and hundreds watching from the studio audience, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) leaned across his desk with a crucial health-care question.
“What’s the quality of the Norwegian system?” Sanders asked Meetali Kakad, an Oslo-based health researcher. “Is it good?”
In her view, it was: “Far better than Canada.”
Sanders’s “town hall on Medicare for All,” an event he’d organized after becoming convinced that it would never be produced by the mainstream media, never got more combative than that. Over 100 minutes, Sanders and nine guests — three at a time, taking turns — discussed the need to bring about single-payer health care, its benefits to business and its implementation around the world. (Kakad’s Canada joke was aimed at Danyaal Raza, there to defend his country’s system.)
“It’s a discussion you’re not likely to see on the mainstream news,” Sanders said at the outset. “This event will not be interrupted by commercials for the drug companies.”
Cable news has been relatively generous to Sanders, as compared to the usual relationship between corporate America and democratic socialists. To strong ratings, he’s appeared in town halls on MSNBC and “debate nights” on CNN. Last year, the senator appeared more on Sunday shows than any member of the Senate’s Democratic caucus. In an interview last fall, he revealed his approach to cable news: “I usually don’t answer the question that they asked.”
On Tuesday night, it was Sanders asking the questions, and getting answers he liked. In the room — the Congressional Auditorium, where in 2010 President Barack Obama revved up House Democrats ahead of their Affordable Care Act vote — Sanders’s audience alternated between rapt attention and grateful applause as experts explained how higher tax rates could replace America’s health-care system with universal Medicare. A mention of Tommy Douglas, the father of Canada’s health-care system who remains somewhat obscure in the United States, inspired loud applause.
“No billboards, no high salaries,” said former Medicare and Medicaid administrator Donald Berwick. “The complexity of the system just isn’t there. What we’ve got here is insane!”
“Is that a clinical term?” asked Sanders, jokingly.
The content of the town hall was familiar; Sanders has hosted Web videos and podcasts on the “Medicare for All” bill. What was new was the delivery system, a team-up between the left-leaning online video channels the Young Turks, Attn and NowThis.
All of those channels had run popular content from Sanders, and the senator had previously hired Armand Aviram away from NowThis to make bite-sized policy explainer videos. The town hall was designed to see whether the online networks could combine to draw a bigger audience than Sanders might get on cable. It worked: According to the partners, 1.1 million people watched the event, about as many as play the popular smartphone trivia game HQ during its twice-daily live episodes.
HQ offers prizes, while Sanders offered some lessons about how health care worked. His first panel delivered a grim view of America’s private health-care system, with the founder of Remote Area Medical describing how the rural poor lived without basic coverage. The next panel offered hope, with businessman Richard Master and brewery owner Jen Kimmich describing how universal coverage could relieve pressure from the private sector.
“Are you finding that more people in the business community going behind ideology and finding that Medicare for All would be good policy for them?” asked Sanders.
“Every day,” said Master.
Sanders, who largely sat and listened to his guests, clearly relished the chance to speak without the confines of a campaign or a TV show. After Kimmich compared the cost of health care with her tax burden, Sanders called himself “the recipient of 30-second ads that raised that issue” and went off.
“What people will say, is, ‘Oh, Sanders is trying to raise taxes,’ ” he said. “It’s true. Many people, not all, will pay more in taxes. But if I told you today that instead of paying $10,000 a year for health insurance, you could pay $7,000 in taxes and have comprehensive health-care coverage for your whole family? Well, what most Americas would say is: Where can I sign up?”
Republicans, who have fitfully engaged with Sanders on his Medicare plan, were not around to argue. Earlier in the day, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who has asked for a Congressional Budget Office score of Sanders’s bill, attempted to bait the senator into a debate about “government-run” health care, even asking if cutbacks in the United Kingdom proved that the National Health Service was unworkable. (The U.K.’s Labour Party has blamed the cuts on the ruling Conservative Party’s austerity cuts.)
Sanders ignored the bait, and on Tuesday night, he seemed to be having fun. “Who’s that young guy?” he asked, after a screen showed footage of him from the 1990s — hair already white but noticeably wavier. He shared stories of conservative politicians in other countries recoiling at the cost of American health care. He warned the president that Kakad, while Norwegian, “does not want to move to the United States.”
The whole show ended at around 8:45 p.m. Fifteen minutes later, HQ trivia began. In a remarkable coincidence, one of the questions was about Tommy Douglas.
“Which TV show’s lead actor is the grandchild of a legendary Canadian politician?” asked the app.
The answer was “24.”