NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - The last few months have been volatile for Bernie Sanders. On Wednesday the U.S. senator from Vermont said he is suspending his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, a hard-fought battle that shifted the party to the left. Less than two months ago he won around two-thirds of pledged delegates in the Nevada caucuses, becoming the race’s clear front-runner. Then Covid-19 started making the presidential election – and Sanders – feel like afterthoughts. Yet the ongoing pandemic may bring closer his universal healthcare dream.
Bernie, as he is widely known, has now left the field clear for former Vice President Joe Biden. But he undeniably shaped the debate. It would have been almost unthinkable for Democratic presidential candidates to seriously consider positions like government healthcare for all, canceling student debt, or decriminalizing illegal border crossing before Sanders shocked the party by winning over 40% of the popular vote in the 2016 primary against eventual nominee Hillary Clinton.
He also changed what it means to be moderate. Biden’s policies are still a far cry from Sanders’ $13 trillion healthcare plan or $16 trillion so-called Green New Deal. But the presumptive nominee supports a $15 minimum wage, spending $1.7 trillion to fight climate change and another $800 billion on healthcare over 10 years. These proposals would have looked progressive not that long ago.
And now Covid-19 is making Sanders’ spending plans seem less outlandish. The U.S. government has already passed stimulus bills representing more than $2 trillion, around 10% of GDP, including a significant boost to unemployment coverage and direct payments to individuals.
The health crisis is also highlighting the potential virtues of a more comprehensive and connected approach to healthcare. The U.S. system’s fragmented fragility has been laid bare, as has the danger of viewing health as an individual matter. Universal coverage of some kind now seems far more likely – even if it’s not the senator’s so-called Medicare-for-all plan.
In U.S. politics there’s a concept called the Overton window. It’s the range of ideas that are politically tolerable in a society at any given moment, and it may shift over time. Sanders’ greatest legacy may be that he widened the Overton window – making space for Covid-19 to push America through it.
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