By Daniel Weintraub
In the days before last month’s Iowa caucuses, the Washington Times quoted a stay-at-home mom from Dubuque who wasn’t yet sure how she was going to vote. But the woman had narrowed her choice to a final two: Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders.
How could she be torn between the only billionaire in the race and the man who says, over and over, that billionaires are the root of all our country’s problems?
Trump, the New York real estate mogul, and Sanders, the senator from Vermont (by way of Brooklyn), are both appealing to a large segment of the population that’s fed up with business-as-usual in Washington and on Wall Street, and they want change. They may not know what kind of change they want. But they know they don’t want more of the same.
In fact, if you read the transcripts of their campaign speeches, sometimes it can be difficult to tell which is from Trump and which is from Sanders.
Both men rail against the influence of special interests and big money contributors on the political process, and accuse their opponents of being beholden to their donors.
Sanders and Trump both oppose free trade. They say the North American Free Trade Agreement, negotiated by former President Bill Clinton, sent U.S. jobs to Mexico, and they say the Trans Pacific trade agreement pushed by President Obama would be a bad deal for U.S. companies and workers. Both also believe that immigration has depressed wages for middle class Americans.
To be sure, Trump says he wants smaller government and lower taxes, while Sanders is for the opposite. But both support an activist federal government that wields its power aggressively to try to solve the problems that frustrate American citizens.
It’s that issue – power – that seems to unite the two candidates’ supporters. These voters feel as if the government and the economy have been rigged against them, and they want someone to do something about it.
So maybe it’s not a surprise that even on the issue that has most sharply divided Democrats and Republicans in Washington for the past eight years – health care – Trump and Sanders have remarkably similar takes.
Sanders is a longtime supporter of a government-run, universal health care system. He wants to transition Obama’s Affordable Care Act to a single-payer, “Medicare for All” program that would do away with insurance companies and have the federal government contract directly with doctors and hospitals to care for everyone. Under his plan, the federal government would use its power as the sole purchaser of prescription drugs to try to force pharmaceutical companies to lower their prices.
Trump used to be an open supporter of government-managed health care, and advocated such a plan when he briefly toyed with running for president in 2000. Now he says he is no longer for single payer. But in a Republican debate last year he praised the health care system in Scotland, which is run by the government. And last month, Trump started bashing the pharmaceutical companies and, like Sanders, embraced the idea of using the government’s clout to drive down drug prices.
It’s difficult to predict where all of this might lead. But given that Sanders and Trump are each currently drawing support from large swaths of their party’s voters, it suggests that the public may hold the private sector as responsible as the government for the problems they see in health care. And voters might be more open to radical change in the system than either party’s leaders in Washington seem to believe.