Given everything that’s happening right now, it’s hard to believe there’s still a presidential campaign going on. But there is, and because everyone’s locked inside and there is no campaigning and no rallies, it’s now operating almost entirely on Twitter.
On Tuesday, Twitter’s main character, at least for liberal political commentators and consultants, was Briahna Joy Gray, Bernie Sanders’ campaign press secretary and a former writer for The Intercept and Current Affairs.
Since the coronavirus hit America, the Sanders campaign and its supporters have been hammering the point that Medicare for All could be the cure for millions of people losing their health insurance when they get fired in a pandemic-fueled recession and are facing the cost of testing and treatment. It could also fill the empty space where federal coordination is supposed to be, which has left states and FEMA trying to outbid each other on ventilators and healthcare workers begging for masks while the Trump administration allows American companies to ship millions of them overseas.
Democratic frontrunner and probable nominee Joe Biden continues to pretend that Medicare for All advocates are arguing that a single-payer system could stop the virus itself, and thus continues to oppose Medicare for All in favor of his own plan that would, by the campaign’s own admission, leave millions uninsured. But very quickly, for Biden and others, the mainstream Democratic line has quickly become that no one should have to pay for testing or treatment for coronavirus — Medicare for All Who Have This One Illness.
Sen. Kamala Harris, the former presidential candidate and Biden surrogate, has co-sponsored Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All plan and then offered her own plan which was also called Medicare for All, which fell flat with just about everyone for one reason or another. Since then, Harris has endorsed Biden, who does not believe healthcare is a human right.
On Monday night, Harris once again reiterated the point that coronavirus testing and treatment should be free, and Gray, in a quote-tweet, responded by asking why cancer and diabetes patients shouldn’t be offered the same protections.
The liberal Twitter faves lost their shit almost immediately, with the ostensible reason being that Harris’ own mother lost her battle with cancer. Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state legislator who lost his only statewide run for office by 17 points and then became a political commentator, called Gray “toxic” on. Tuesday morning and later implied that she’d be blacklisted from working on campaigns in the future.
The outrage was backed up by prominent Democrats in the media, campaign staffers, Politico dweebs, and pundits alike. The verdicts ranged from “This is why Bernie Sanders is losing” to “You’ll never work in this town again.” (Consider me skeptical that a press secretary’s tweets are why Sanders is losing, considering the Biden team now includes someone who did pro bono PR work for Harvey Weinstein, and that it also rewarded the black voters who overwhelmingly support him by welcoming Michael “Stop and Frisk” Bloomberg to the team.)
What people who’ve made a career out of being cited by Axios as “sources familiar with his thinking” take as carelessness is exactly what the most diehard Sanders supporters and people disillusioned with the system in general appreciate about people like Gray and David Sirota: They don’t seem to operate with one eye on the next job. (Or if they do, they’re spectacularly bad at it.)
Lost in all of the concern trolling about Gray’s future career trajectory, though, is that her real crime was putting in plain words what the consequences of not making testing and treatment free for illnesses beyond the coronavirus are. The answer to Gray’s question from Harris and the people who support her because of her policies, given her own prior support of Medicare for All, should be a resounding, “No, it’s not OK to die from cancer and diabetes if you’re poor.” The problem is what comes after: an admission that the only way to ensure that doesn’t happen is to have a healthcare system that looks decidedly more like Bernie Sanders’ vision than Joe Biden’s.
This is not just some abstract policy debate. We live in a country where making the choice to stay alive, if you’re lucky enough to be able to make that choice, routinely drives people into bankruptcy and sometimes into the decision to not live anymore. A lot of liberals and Democrats in general seem to think pointing this out is a cudgel which takes a simple disagreement out of bounds, even as Democrats and people on the left broadly agree that the decisions made and positions taken by the Trump administration and congressional Republicans are life-and-death ones.
The truth is that the reality of healthcare in this country should make everyone uncomfortable. On top of the horrible personal experiences most of us have with the healthcare system and all that comes with it, we’re supposed to just accept that there’s a baseline of people who will needlessly die every year because the politics are too hard. And on top of being expected to accept this, we’re supposed to do so without a hint of anger or frustration. Fuck that!
One other thing that this conversation illustrates is just how unwilling many in the institutional Democratic Party are to actually engage in the healthcare conversation again for the third time in 25 years. The lesson these Democrats seem to have taken from the Hillarycare and Obamacare fights is that it was a waste of political capital with no thanks at the other end, just a decade of Republican dominance and state- and court-level rejections of all of the pieces that were supposed to support the system, both the good (the Medicaid expansion) and the bad (the individual mandate.)
So telling these Democrats what happens when people don’t have health insurance generally doesn’t have the same effect as showing them the reality of, say, gun violence. The attitude seems to be: Been there, done that.
Joe Biden is an avatar for this kind of Democrat: By all available accounts, he was not a supporter of Hillarycare and he was an early opponent of Barack Obama spending all of his political capital on healthcare. Biden spent the bulk of his career in the Senate looking for areas of agreement with the Republican Party and achieving their shared goals, not fulfilling the progressive ideal of what America should look like or even furthering the goals of the Democratic platform. And if we’ve learned anything, it’s that there are zero shared goals between the two parties when it comes to healthcare.
Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, almost single-handedly dragged the prospect of further government expansion into healthcare back into the limelight, which has helped make not only Medicare for All but the public option widely popular with the Democratic electorate — to the point where every other major candidate in the race had to rush to adopt their own proposals to expand the role of government in the healthcare system.
As much flak as Sanders gets for not being a registered Democrat and for his “divisiveness” (i.e. exposing cracks in the Democratic coalition), his presence as a national political figure who kind of sort of has a chance to be the president is the only tie many of the people who constitute his base — young voters — have to the Democratic Party at all. So therefore, it might be the only thing keeping the healthcare debate from escalating into a deep schism in the Democratic electorate, especially if Donald Trump is re-elected in November, or if Biden wins and decides a public option would be too hard and unrewarding.
And if either of those things happen, the uncomfortably frank tweets of campaign staffers with be the least of the Democrats’ worries.
Image via Bloomberg TV