The need to expand access to affordable healthcare is rapidly emerging as the top domestic policy issue in the 2008 presidential race. And no wonder: With the number of uninsured now up to nearly 47 million, and more than one-third of that total consisting of households with family incomes of $40,000 or more, lack of health insurance has become a concern not just of the poor but also of the middle class. Moreover, soaring medical costs–increasing in large part because at least one of every five healthcare dollars goes to administrative costs and insurance company profits–are a worry even to those who have some form of insurance. More than half of personal bankruptcies today are caused by illness or medical debts.

There’s no mystery about the fix Americans want: Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed in a recent New York Times/CBS poll say the government should guarantee health coverage for all Americans. Half said they’d willingly pay as much as $500 a year more in taxes to pay for universal coverage. To do that, this country needs to establish a single-payer system–one inspired by Canada and other developed countries but distinctly American in approach. There’s already legislation, with seventy-eight co-sponsors–the United States National Health Insurance Act (HR 676)–that would accomplish this by expanding and improving the existing Medicare system. The popularity of such an approach, endorsed March 6 by the AFL-CIO executive council, is illustrated by the ease with which California legislators passed a single-payer plan last year–only to have Governor Schwarzenegger veto it. In late February, the plan was introduced again, as part of a reform-from-below push that is seeing states tackle the healthcare crisis.

Ultimately, however, America needs a national fix.

Americans have lost hope that the Bush Administration will do anything to address the national healthcare crisis. Only 24 percent of those in the New York Times/CBS poll said they were satisfied with Bush’s handling of the issue. And that number will surely shrink with recent revelations about the deplorable conditions at the Army’s Walter Reed Hospital–another reminder of this Administration’s incompetence. But so far most of the major presidential candidates have failed to take advantage of Bush’s low standing to advance bold proposals.

Among the candidates, Congressman Dennis Kucinich has a long record of embracing single-payer proposals. Unfortunately, he is a lonely leader. The front-running Democratic contenders remain vague and cautious. Senator Barack Obama says, “I am absolutely determined that by the end of the first term of the next President, we should have universal healthcare in this country.” Senator Hillary Clinton says she would enact “health insurance for every child and universal healthcare for every American”–with specifics “yet to come.” Former Senator John Edwards moves beyond rhetoric to a plan: He would require everyone to have insurance and require employers either to provide coverage or pay into a fund to provide it. But although he reaches out to labor on other issues, Edwards is unwilling to embrace HR 676, which has earned support from nine international unions, seventeen state federations and sixty-three central labor councils.

Voters have to demand more if they want more. Obama at least recognizes the frustration of Americans for whom meaningful healthcare reform has been a dream deferred at least since the collapse of the Clinton Administration’s bureaucratic proposals of the mid-1990s. The Clinton plan rejected single-payer and embraced a complicated hybrid that relied too heavily on the same insurance companies that had failed to make healthcare affordable and accessible. “We can’t afford another disappointing charade in 2008, 2009 and 2010,” says Obama. He’s right. But he and his fellow front-runners should recognize that as long as they avoid talking about single-payer and continue to tinker around the edges of the current system, they are players in the charade.