The fight for universal health care has long been a core issue of the progressive movement in the United States, and those of us who believe in its rightful place here have argued for years that it is an unavoidable stepping stone in the fight against economic disenfranchisement and injustice. As other issues have come and gone over years, here we remain, embittered by the failures of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and fearful of the possibility of what could replace it just as the rest of the left is. Yet we still seem to waste our breath advocating for what appears to us—not to mention the rest of the industrialized world—as the most sensible solution.
The cause was undoubtedly emboldened last year by the momentary candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), whose treatment of the issue not only echoed points made by those fighting on the ground for single-payer health care, but also rallied voters nationwide around the issue. It was a refreshing moment to be sure, and without it Sanders’ recently proposed “Medicare for All” bill would almost certainly be a nonstarter, much like its short-lived predecessors.
Likewise, much is owed to the disastrous attempts to repeal and replace the ACA by the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress. For those of us on the left and even in the center, the Trump presidency has been a rude awakening that progress can erode far more quickly than it compounds; indeed, if Americans ever forgot that the health care debate in America is a life-or-death issue, the events of this year have been a stark reminder.
Until now, Senate Democrats—with the exception of Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)— have stuck to the script given to them by party leadership in 2016, defending the ACA and thereby playing the long game, supposedly.
Yet, the response of several of Sanders’ colleagues to the “Medicare for All” Act has been surprisingly less dismissive than expected, and
16 them have even gone as far as to co-sponsor the bill. In fact, among them are party superstars, including Kamala Harris (D-CA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Al Franken (D-MN) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) (Bloomberg, “Sanders Offers Medicare-for-All Plan Backed by 16 Senate Democrats, 09.13.17).
Hold on. Where did this development come from, and why? Last year, Bernie Sanders’ legislative agenda could hardly make it out the doors of his office without immediately being crushed under the weight of the political establishment, but now one of the issues for which he was most mocked in the 2016 primaries boasts significant minority support within the Democratic Party? How is this possible?
While anything seems possible now in the Trump era, the aforementioned co-sponsors have certainly shocked and delighted progressives, myself included. Yet, the answer that Kamala Harris offered to these questions, that “it’s just the right thing to do” (Twitter, 09.13.2017), is suspicious. Before now, the rhetoric among mainstream Democrats has centered around compromise with Republicans, around reforming the exchanges and around protecting the essential protections of the ACA. Until now, the Democratic Party has been playing a defensive game, and progressives are rightly skeptical of the sudden change of heart.
Of course, a vote is a vote is a vote, and make no mistake—any support is good support. We must, however, be wary of these Democrats’ motivations, for among those 16 senators there could be, and likely is, a future president. While their support for a single-payer system is unquestionably a step in the right direction, those of us who are new to the issue must not forget the larger context.
That is to say, there is still a significant amount of time between now and when any of these candidates-in-waiting will have their chance to prove their supposed convictions. The “Medicare for All” Act will not pass, and its co-sponsors will inevitably be back to square one in due course, meaning that whatever support it receives will be purely notional. Thus, when Harris remarked, “[T]here’s
certainly momentum and energy around [the idea of a single-payer system],” less cynical minds than mine were all but affirmed in their suspicions that this could be little more than a matter of political posturing (CommonDreams, “‘The Right Thing to Do’: Kamala Harris to Co-Sponsor Bernie’s Medicare for All Bill,” 06.31.17).
This skepticism is not unwarranted, for much of the Democratic support for Sanders’ bill has come from further out in left field than progressives could have reasonably predicted. All too recently, Cory Booker was broadsided for voting against a bill—also proposed by Bernie Sanders—that would have allowed the importation of pharmaceuticals from Canada and, at least in theory, resulted in cheaper drug prices for Americans (USAToday, “Slammed by left, Booker to join Sanders on drug imports, 02.27.17). Al Franken, for all his viral takedowns of conservatives in committee, has hardly thrown any of his weight behind even his own proposal of a public option, let alone for a single-payer system.
Most importantly, where were these senators this time last year? To be fair, the health care debate has evolved recently, and popular support for a “Medicare for All” system has grown. Of course, in a properly functioning democracy, flip-flopping would be a non-issue, and this change of pace would seem perfectly genuine. However, our democracy is far from perfect, so when candidates— or would-be candidates, in this case—suddenly begin to follow the votes, we must be cautious.
Let me be adamantly clear, if not trite: Health care is a right, not a privilege. The movement to make this sentiment a reality cannot afford to pick its allies, and the co-sponsors of the “Medicare for All” Act are no exceptions. Nonetheless, before eager Democratic voters like myself finally get their next crack at the voting booths, we must remember the promise those 16 senators made and demand that they stay true to what they supposedly believe. For them, this is no longer a litmus test, but a test of authenticity. There is no time to wait on this issue, and these are promises that the American people cannot afford to have broken.