Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren made the case for Medicare for All during the Democratic debate July 30 in Detroit. 

The Democratic presidential candidates gathered in Detroit last week for their second round of debates. And, this time, there was a clear winner: "Medicare for All."

The win came because Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. — working together not as rivals but as a progressive tag team — dared to call out more conservative Democratic candidates and debate moderators for peddling “Republican talking points” in their objections to replacing private insurance with a program that guarantees health care as a human right. The progressive contenders bluntly labeled compromises on health care as “wrong.”

For supporters of single-payer health care, which rarely gets a fair hearing in media coverage, Tuesday night’s debate was an epic moment. And Warren and Sanders seized it to directly challenge the hostility that political and media elites hold not just for this reform but for the idea that Democrats should again be the party of what Warren describes as “big structural change.”

Sanders and Warren also challenged the race’s centrist front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden. Though the former vice president was not on the first-night stage, the critique that the progressives brought to the debate was so powerful that CNN moderator Jake Tapper pressed Biden to respond on the second night.

The moderators and the Democratic moderates — who were given plenty of time to serve as first-night surrogates for Biden — tried to trip up Warren and Sanders with arguments that those big structural changes would be too much for November 2020 voters. But it didn’t work. In fact, the progressives got a chance to make the case that going big is the way to win.

Warren framed the fight when she observed that, though she plans to work her heart out to beat the president in 2020, “Our problems did not start with Donald Trump. Donald Trump is part of a corrupt, rigged system that has helped the wealthy and the well connected and kicked dirt in the faces of everyone else.”

That system has kicked working Americans hard. And the cruelest kicks have targeted ailing children, women, and men who need health care — not insurance company runarounds, skyrocketing drug prices, and personal bankruptcy. People know that. A 2017 Bloomberg survey found that Wall Street was very unpopular and so was Congress, but the most unpopular institutions in America were insurers and drug companies. In contrast, a Reuters/Ipsos poll from last year found that 70 percent of Americans favor Medicare for All, including 85 percent of Democrats.

Yet the questioning on Tuesday night began with an inquiry from Tapper that imagined the reform as politically dangerous. “Jake,” replied Sanders, “your question is a Republican talking point.”

Warren had already pushed back against candidates who were trashing Medicare for All as a threat to those supposedly popular private insurance plans. “Let’s be clear about this,” she announced. “We are the Democrats. We are not about trying to take away health care from anyone. That’s what the Republicans are trying to do. And we should stop using Republican talking points in order to talk with each other about how to best provide that health care.”

Later, after Congressman John Delaney said, “I think Democrats win when we run on real solutions, not impossible promises, when we run on things that are workable, not fairy tale economics,” Warren pounced. “You know,” she said, “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”

The applause was thunderous.

Her rejoinder challenged the media fantasy that Democrats must compromise on the question of whether health care is a right.

This is important because, while Medicare for All polls well in swing states such as Wisconsin, it is under attack. Warren upended the attack when she asked, “What have the private insurance companies done? They’ve sucked billions of dollars out of our health care system. They’ve made everybody fill out dozens and dozens of forms. Why? Not because they’re trying to track your health care. They just want one more excuse to say no. Insurance companies do not have a God-given right to suck money out of our health care system.”

Sanders was just as aggressive. Asked what he thought of Delaney’s dismissal of Medicare for All as “political suicide that will just get President Trump reelected,” Sanders replied, “You’re wrong.”

When Tapper asked if Sanders could guarantee that benefits under a Medicare for All system would be as good as those enjoyed by union members with private insurance, Sanders said, “They will be better because Medicare for All is comprehensive. It covers all health care needs. For senior citizens, it will finally include dental care, hearing aids, and eyeglasses.” Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan said, “You don’t know that, Bernie.” Sanders responded, “I do know it. I wrote the damn bill.”

Sanders did write the damn bill. And, last week, Sanders and Warren explained why it is the right way forward — for Democrats, and for America.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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