During CNN’s Monday night health care debate, Graham-Cassidy felt like an afterthought. Senators Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar fought Senators Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy over the latter’s faltering bill, but the event’s thrust actually had little to do with the law’s particulars. It was a three-way ideological clash, which means that it essentially functioned as a preview of the single-payer wars to come. Sanders defended single-payer health care, Klobuchar defended the middle ground, and Graham and Cassidy lied through rictus grins.
As articulated last night, the Republican view of events is what it has always been: The ACA is failing. Graham-Cassidy won’t cut Medicaid or kick people off their insurance. And single-payer health care will bankrupt the country, even though some version of it exists in most developed nations.
Republicans are always going to make these arguments, and their rhetoric shouldn’t deter Democrats. Sanders ably proved that it is possible to defend the Affordable Care Act while arguing for improvements to our health care system, and that’s a strategy Democrats need to internalize. Klobuchar’s uneven performance—she excelled at defending Planned Parenthood, but didn’t really define a vision for improving American health care overall—won’t suffice.
Neither will the Democrats’ reluctance to call out their Republican colleagues. Last night, Sanders and Klobuchar insisted, over and over, that they “really like” their Republican colleagues. This is a liberal tic that obscures the moral distinctions between Graham-Cassidy and proposals like Medicare for All. “These are wonderful gentlemen, and I know nobody up here wants to see anybody die,” Sanders said. But Graham-Cassidy would cause deaths anyway. So would each ACA alternative Republicans have proposed. Republicans know this and don’t care, while Democrats default to etiquette and hope that reason prevails.
One audience question illustrated this to telling effect. When a New Hampshire woman graphically described waking up to find her husband dead of an overdose, and credited a Medicaid-funded drug court for helping her fight her own addiction, Graham dithered. He could only ramble about the national debt. That’s the weakness his opponents need to exploit, and they can’t do it and assure voters of his goodness at the same time.