Four of the five top-polling Democratic candidates for president of the United States took the stage in Miami for the second night of the 2020 presidential debates, with high expectations after a first night of debate that left most exceptionally underwhelmed by the Democratic bench. But with Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg all on one stage, the expectations were high for a clash of ideology and policy planning.
Last night we were left wishing those running on the Democratic ticket would spend their time more fruitfully than on proposals like Medicare For All, which is currently driving their talking points. On health care, the second night was just more of the same, but with a few more cutting words.
As with night one, health care was the opening topic, but plan details were almost nonexistent and no one wanted to talk about paying for nationalized coverage. The big difference is that tax burden to Americans was more directly addressed. Sanders opened the night admitting that the middle class, “will pay more in taxes.” But he made sure to include, “but less in health care.”
Although both he and Sen. Kamala Harris were the only two who raised their hands saying they would do away with private insurance into the bargain, neither had a plan for how to do that. Sanders dodged the question repeatedly, and concluded that Medicare For All would happen, “when tens of millions of people are willing to stand up” the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical companies. After that, Harris got off very easy by not having to address how she would abolish private insurance at all, nor how she would handle the millions of Americans who prefer that insurance.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand asserted that the quickest way to get to a nationalized single-payer system would be not to eliminate private health coverage, but to “compete with insurers,” and that would be her strategy. Buttigieg squared up with his opponents, challenging them. “Everyone who says MFA has a responsibility to explain how you’re going to get from here to there,” he said. He noted that even in England where they have a universal system, there is a private option, although Sanders’ proposal would outlaw private insurance.
Yet there was a bit more intrigue for viewers. An interesting turn of events on the second night of the debate didn’t go unnoticed: how candidates addressed foreigners who are illegally present in the United States. Everyone on stage agreed that health coverage should, and in all of their “plans” would cover illegally present foreign citizens. It became clear in the 2020 presidential race, Democrats find abolishing private health insurance more controversial than making taxpayers pay for all abortions and for the care of illegally present foreigners in the U.S.
But Sanders drew attention away when he went on a tangent about pharmaceutical costs and pricing. He made an outrageous claim that no one on stage appeared to take seriously: “I will lower prescription drugs in half.” However, he failed to explain just how exactly he would accomplish that feat.
In contrast to the louder debaters, Joe Biden was fairly reserved during the health care exchange. If you recall, back when the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was passed, as vice president Biden called it, “a big f-cking deal.” Since that time, he has taken ownership of the last administration’s Cancer Moonshot and launched the Biden Initiative, both major health care undertakings. Although Biden asserts that every single American should have access to taxpayer-sponsored insurance, he stuck with the ACA as the way forward. According to him, we need to “build on ObamaCare. Build on what we did. Make sure everyone does have an option.”
However, his statement was a bit overshadowed by another quiet candidate, Marianne Williamson. Although her answer about health reform got lost in talking about climate change and chemical policy, she had one poignant moment that drove the point home better than any of her colleagues on stage. “We don’t have a health care system in the United States, we have a sick care system in the United States,” she said.
Now if we could only get the other 20-some Democrats to understand that point in a way that leads to proposals better than Medicare For All, or to address the key drivers of health care costs and concerns like children’s health coverage and long-term care. But until the next debate in July, it seems we’re stuck with MFA as the Democratic “plan” forward.