Critic's Notebook: Cruz and Sanders Have Shockingly Grown-Up CNN Debate About Obamacare

The two senators participate in a thoughtful, impassioned argument about the future of health care as the nation wonders why they aren't simply tweeting about it.

Viewers who tuned in to CNN’s debate between Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz on “The Future of Obamacare” must have been puzzled. Where were the insults? The threats to put their opponent in jail? And how was it that by the end of the evening, there was not a single reference by either one to the size of his genitals?

Instead, what we got was a thoughtful, reasoned debate between two politicians, on diametric ends of the ideological spectrum, about one of the most important issues of our time. There were definitely alternative viewpoints on display, but no alternative facts.

Cruz lived up to his reputation as a championship debater by barraging the audience with a dizzying array of statistics to strengthen his case. Some were highly specific, such as his assertion that “742 people in Illinois died while on a waiting list for Medicaid.” Where he got that information from, he didn’t say.

Cruz also employed visual aids, including a map of the states that resisted Obamacare mandates that he pointed out looked just like the electoral map that had voted for Donald Trump. Proudly holding it aloft, he looked like he was waiting for a teacher to apply a gold star. At times, he seemed to be trying too hard, as with his folksy references to the movie Dallas Buyers Club and the “More Cowbell” sketch from Saturday Night Live.

It wasn’t hard to predict how the arguments would go. Bernie passionately advocated for a single-payer system, saying that if Obamacare was repealed, the government would basically be saying to the 20 million people who received health insurance as a result, “Forget about it, you’re gone!”  If he got a nickel for every time he proclaimed the travesty of people not having proper health care in “the wealthiest country in the world,” he was surely rich by the end of the evening. Cruz took a more intellectual approach, delivering the standard Republican dogma about how free enterprise and competition would make everyone in the country healthy, wealthy and wise.

“The last election was a referendum on Obamacare, and the American people decided, quite rightly, that it wasn’t working,” Cruz pointed out, leaving out that Hillary had actually won the popular vote.

“The Republicans are now in a panic,” Bernie observed about the problem they face replacing Obamacare with an alternative that they haven’t managed to figure out in seven years.

There were times when the two senators seemed to be embracing each other in collegial fashion, although it was of the disingenuous variety. “Ted, let’s work together on a Medicare-for-all program,” Bernie suggested, waiting for Cruz’s head to explode. “Bernie, I would love for us to work together on Big Pharma,” Cruz genially responded. Both agreed that drug costs were too high, but had different solutions. Bernie naturally suggested that pharmaceutical companies be subjected to more government regulation, while Cruz said that the problem was the FDA being too stringent in its approval of new drugs. (Yes, that’s what we need, more thalidomide babies.)

In addition to moderators Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, audience members asked several questions. It wasn’t surprising that the queries were often personal and emotional. “What can you do to protect people like me, who are alive because of Obamacare?” a breast cancer survivor asked Cruz, who began his answer by describing his own mother’s battle with the disease. A Maryland woman afflicted with multiple sclerosis described how she had to move from Texas to Maryland in order to gain access to Medicaid. She asked Cruz to promise that the Republicans wouldn’t take it away: “In other words, I like my coverage. Can I keep it?”  

One of the most interesting exchanges was between Bernie and a Texan woman who said she owned five hair salons and couldn’t grow her business or hire “more Americans” because of the Obamacare rule that she would have to provide health insurance to her employees if they numbered 50 or more.

“Let me give you an answer you will not be happy with,” Bernie began. “I’m sorry, I’m afraid to tell you that you will have to provide health care.” As he predicted, the woman did not look happy.

Bernie was particularly vehement about the states that had rejected the Medicaid expansion. “I hope that those governors sleep well at night, because I don’t know how many people lost their lives as a result of their decision,” he thundered.  

Bernie acknowledged that there are problems with Obamacare in its present form, while Cruz labeled it “wreckage” and told the audience that his goal was to “empower you and your choices.” He said that the socialized medicine in countries like Canada and England resulted only in “rationing and waiting periods.”

“Don’t tell me about rationing,” Bernie retorted. “This country has more rationing than any other industrial country on earth, except the rationing is done by income.”

When asked to specify what he envisioned as a replacement for Obamacare, Cruz cited allowing insurance companies to sell policies across state lines, expanding health care accounts, and allowing “portable insurance” for people who change jobs. (That’s assuming, of course, that they work for companies that actually provide health insurance.)

At one point the arguments drifted into the subject of taxation, with Cruz advocating a flat tax and Bernie—you guessed it—calling for higher taxes on the wealthiest one percent. Tapper quickly stepped in, promising, “We’ll do another town hall debate on tax reform.”

And if that one is as substantive and thoughtful as this evening turned out to be, it’s something to look forward to. It certainly beats complex policy proposals delivered in the form of tweets.