Last Tuesday, Senators Bernie Sanders (Independent, VT) and Ted Cruz (R, TX) appeared on national television to debate over the impending Republican replacement for the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. With Sanders defending Obamacare and Cruz attacking it, the CNN-hosted debate was sure to generate controversy and inspire citizens who watched the broadcast of their own. But who really won?
Sanders was very blunt and to the point, saying “the United States is the only major country on Earth not to guarantee health care to all people as a right. I believe we should move in that direction.”
Cruz, for his part, opened by replying that health care was best thought of as an internal affair, and that government oversight would only harm its citizens’ health. He also recalled President Barack Obama’s statement that “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan,” framing it as an oft-repeated promise that the president had neglected to keep.
From the opening statements listeners had a sense of where these two senators stand and their future patterns of attacks. In addition to constantly repeating the idea that health care was an inalienable right, Sanders described an imperfect but workable system that was sabotaged through inter-party conflict. Cruz, on the other hand, deflected attention by bringing up other accusations over Obama’s “broken promises” and the ACA depriving people of choice.
For example, when one woman expressed her concern over how extending health care to her employees would eat into her profit, Sanders was immovable, and turned her concerns on their head, saying “maybe somebody else in Fort Worth, who is providing decent health insurance to their employees… is in unfair competition with you.”
Cruz’s rejoinder was a weak-hearted attempt at blaming Democrats for putting too many restrictions on small-business owners, preventing them from making money. This was despite the fact that Sanders was questioning whether or not health care is an important part of an employee’s well-being.
However, Cruz’s attempts to frame Obamacare as oppressive and overbearing backfired. After talking about how the woman’s freedoms were impeded by the inability to purchase health care programs outside of Texas, Sanders retorted that “Access doesn’t mean a damn thing. What it means is whether people can afford it, can get the health care that they need.”
Cruz sidestepped the issue and tried to make it appear that lack of provisions for health care were the result of the private sector not being allowed to intervene.
Throughout the debate, Sanders made several overt gestures towards Cruz, proffering his hand and telling him that he was willing and wanted to work with him. Accepting Sanders’ proposal to work together would simultaneously raise questions as to why Cruz had opposed such legislation in the past if he agreed on its premises and delegitimize him in the eyes of his constituency for going against his own party’s ideals.
In contrast, Cruz played right into Sanders’ hands through his rather obvious desire to appear in control. At one point, as Sanders went off the stage to address a concerned audience member, Cruz quickly followed him down. This showed a lack of confidence on the part of Cruz. He was so unconvinced of his own standpoint that he had to reassert authority by magnifying his presence and visibility to the audience.
Interestingly, both senators agreed that Obamacare was deeply flawed and broken. Equally interesting is that neither senator really seemed to offer any tangible solutions. The only concrete things in the debate were their mutual misgivings over Obamacare and their enmity towards each other.
Therefore, the most disappointing part of the debate is that both candidates were passionately arguing over a load of nothing. Sanders wanted to keep Obamacare but could offer no cohesive example as to how they could not only maintain but improve the ACA. Cruz could only say that Obamacare disempowered the people, brushing aside Sanders’ constant reminders that Obamacare had ultimately helped more people than it hurt. Beyond criticizing Obamacare and suggesting more market friendly plans, Cruz offered nothing remotely obtainable.
Sanders was the superior debater in that he was able to stick to his positions as well as dismantle Cruz’s more pointed barbs. The quickness of Sanders’ rebuttals left Cruz on the defense for the majority of the debate, and thus at a disadvantage. Ultimately, while Sanders displayed more control and presence than Cruz in the debate, neither senator can really be considered the winner when neither of them was able to offer any viable solutions.