Uni­ver­sal health­care in Amer­ica? Not a taboo now, thanks to Bernie San­ders

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Ross Barkan

There was a time, not too long ago – the iPhone, Face­book and Twit­ter all ex­isted – when the two lead­ing Demo­cratic can­di­dates for president of the United States didn’t sup­port the right of gay peo­ple to marry. “I be­lieve mar­riage is be­tween a man and a woman. I am not in fa­vor of gay mar­riage,” the in­spir­ing tri­bune of hope and change, Barack Obama, de­clared in 2008. His ri­val, Hil­lary Clin­ton, con­curred. Gay peo­ple shouldn’t be able to marry.

By 2012, Obama backed same-sex mar­riage. Clin­ton fol­lowed suit, later than most Democrats, in 2013. Three years later, when she would run for president again, there was not a lead­ing Demo­crat any­where – name a city, a county – who didn’t sup­port same-sex mar­riage.

Sin­gle-payer health­care, thanks to Bernie San­ders, may be the new gay mar­riage.

Once rad­i­cal and taboo in main­stream Demo­cratic cir­cles, en­dors­ing uni­ver­sal health­care cov­er­age is now de rigueur for any­one who se­ri­ously wants to run for president on the Demo­cratic side in 2020. Ka­mala Har­ris, the Cal­i­for­nia sen­a­tor who seemed to be tak­ing the Clin­ton route to the nom­i­na­tion by court­ing her Hamp­tons donors, is now cospon­sor­ing San­ders’ Medi­care-for-all bill.

There are 16 Demo­cratic sen­a­tors in to­tal sup­port­ing the bill, a re­mark­able num­ber con­sid­er­ing where the health­care de­bate was two years ago when San­ders first cam­paigned for president as a demo­cratic so­cial­ist long-shot. At the time, pun­dits, po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tives, and count­less elected of­fi­cials dis­missed the sin­gle-payer San­ders dream as a disin­gen­u­ous moon­shot.

Now, the man who told Obama to lay off Bain Cap­i­tal (Cory Booker) and the woman who once voted in fa­vor of with­hold­ing fed­eral funds from sanc­tu­ary cities (Kirsten Gil­li­brand) are co-spon­sors of San­ders’ bill. Times, in­deed, have changed.

San­ders is an un­usual politi­cian be­cause he’s been will­ing to lead on an is­sue be­fore its broad pop­u­lar­ity was es­tab­lished. For decades, he has roamed the po­lit­i­cal wilder­ness cry­ing out for Euro­pean or Cana­dian-style sin­gle-payer health­care. He has done it through Demo­cratic and Repub­li­can ad­min­is­tra­tions, no mat­ter the elec­torate’s po­lit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion at any given time. It is some­thing he earnestly be­lieves in.

But most politi­cians, as gay mar­riage proved, have few firmly-held con­vic­tions be­yond what they as­sume the pub­lic ex­pects of them. If the peo­ple seem to cry out for war, we go to Iraq. If enough peo­ple say mar­riage is be­tween a man and a woman, it stays that way. Few politi­cians are will­ing defy con­ven­tional wis­dom. Pol­i­tics is ul­ti­mately a game of self-preser­va­tion. Polls de­ter­mine val­ues.

The move­ment to­wards sin­gle­payer is hu­mane and sen­si­ble. It is also a re­flec­tion of the chang­ing zeit­geist and the power of the San­ders move­ment, which rep­re­sents the fu­ture of the party. As the na­tion’s most well-liked politi­cian and the hero of mil­len­ni­als, he is now the ring­mas­ter. Clin­ton’s bit­ter book tour, if any­thing, is an af­fir­ma­tion of this.

No one should dis­count just how ar­du­ous the road ahead re­mains. Sin­gle-payer would sub­stan­tially dis­rupt our cur­rent sys­tem, now ar­rayed around em­ployer-based health in­sur­ance. It’s an ex­pen­sive and in­ef­fi­cient sys­tem, but there are peo­ple who like the health cov­er­age of­fered by their em­ploy­ers.

Taxes would rise as health­care costs are shifted over to the govern­ment. This is a trade-off other in­dus­tri­al­ized coun­tries are will­ing to make – they also pay their doc­tors less – but one Amer­i­cans aren’t used to. Mus­ter­ing po­lit­i­cal will to even­tu­ally pass such leg­is­la­tion will be an­other Her­culean chal­lenge, as Oba­macare was in 2010.

There is an ar­gu­ment, valid in its own way, that the safer ap­proach is to just re­pair Oba­macare. Of­fer a pub­lic op­tion to com­pete with pri­vate in­sur­ers. In­crease sub­si­dies. Watch pre­mi­ums fall, in­sur­ance com­pa­nies cry.

Yet a party so mori­bund as the Democrats needs a worth­while goal, and sin­gle-payer is it. There should be oth­ers, like a mas­sive jobs pro­gram to halt the ero­sion of sta­ble work that au­to­ma­tion and glob­al­iza­tion is killing for good.

In the mean­time, free­ing health­care from the clutches of preda­tory in­sur­ance com­pa­nies is what all Democrats should be think­ing about. Bet­ter to have Demo­cratic group­think about guar­an­tee­ing health­care than go­ing to war or keep­ing peo­ple from get­ting mar­ried.

Pho­to­graph: Call/ Sipa USA/REX/Shut­ter­stock

‘The move­ment to­wards sin­gle-payer is hu­mane and sen­si­ble.’

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