Last night’s 90-minute CNN debate between Sanders and Cruz on health care was both enormously entertaining and jarring. It was the exact kind of debate we didn’t see in the fall—partisan but wonky, focused on policy, not personality.
Although it felt like a footnote in a week dominated by Donald Trump’s persistent attacks on the judicial branch—and was quickly overshadowed by the Republican Congress’s move to silence Elizabeth Warren—Sanders and Cruz were well-matched. Although Cruz, a former lawyer, is a more skilled debater, he more than met his match in the single-minded Sanders, who was able to parlay nearly all of Cruz’s attacks by arguing for the necessity of a single-payer system. Cruz’s tactics felt dated in that he tried to hang Obamacare around the Democratic Party’s neck, when his party currently controls the law’s fate. Sanders, moreover, was able to brush Cruz’s criticisms aside by arguing that the law’s flaws resulted from the fact that it didn’t go far enough, rather than too far.
Sanders did an excellent job defining the future of the health care debate. He pinned down the slippery Cruz a number of times, most notably on the Republican’s call for “universal access” to health care, which he exposed, in a patented Bernie rant, as completely meaningless.
When Cruz went to the tired Republican playbook of pointing out that the U.K.’s health care system is also flawed and occasionally results in patients having to wait for needed care, Sanders again shut him down, explaining that the U.S. system is also rationed, just by income.
But the most interesting exchange of the evening was probably with a Texas woman who owned a number of hair salons, but couldn’t expand her business because Obamacare requires that companies with over 50 employees provide health insurance for their workers. Normally this kind of question—which pits the interests of a small business owner against those of her employees—makes Democrats stumble, as they try to please every constituency. Sanders, however, simply told the woman that if she wanted to have more than 50 employees that she should provide them health care—a kind of Democratic socialist version of the Republicans’ “If you want something, you should be able to pay for it.”
But a robust discussion of health care policy really was only the second-most important thing that happened at Tuesday’s debate. Ted Cruz also totally destroyed his religious credibility.