Hillary Clinton Attacks Bernie Sanders’ Progressive Agenda

Why is she talking like a Republican?
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has attacked her main opponent's plan to pay for his domestic agenda.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has attacked her main opponent's plan to pay for his domestic agenda.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

This is why Hillary Clinton makes so many progressives queasy.

The former secretary of state and front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination has launched a new attack on her chief rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). The subject is taxes and Sanders' apparent willingness to raise them, even on the middle class, to pay for his ambitious domestic agenda.

Sanders has proposed a variety of new programs designed to help Americans pay for everything from child care to college tuition. Most famously, Sanders is also a longtime proponent of “single-payer” health insurance -- in other words, expanding Medicare so everybody, not just the elderly, could enroll in it.

While Sanders has supported the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, he has described the legislation as merely a first step toward guaranteeing that every American has health insurance. He has said that creating a single-payer system, similar to the schemes that now operate in countries such as France and Taiwan, would achieve that goal.

Such a large expansion of government programs would inevitably require raising trillions of dollars in new revenue. The health care plan alone would require something like $15 trillion over 10 years, according to estimates that have appeared in the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.

In the past, Sanders has proposed financing a single-payer scheme with a payroll tax that would affect everybody, including the middle class. On Monday, that possibility drew a sharp attack from Brian Fallon, Clinton’s chief campaign spokesman.

“Bernie Sanders has called for a roughly 9-percent tax hike on middle-class families just to cover his health-care plan,” Fallon told Politico, “and simple math dictates he'll need to tax workers even more to pay for the rest of his at least $18-20 trillion agenda. If you are truly concerned about raising incomes for middle-class families, the last thing you should do is cut their take-home pay right off the bat by raising their taxes.”

Fallon’s comments were neither offhand nor off-script. On the contrary, they were part of a rhetorical campaign that began during Saturday’s Democratic presidential debate, when Clinton stated that "hard-working, middle class families need a raise, not a tax increase." Shortly after the debate was over, Jennifer Granholm, the former Michigan governor who is a senior adviser to a pro-Clinton organization that coordinates with the official campaign, reinforced that argument with a tweet:

Fallon on Tuesday piled on with more tweets, including this one:

The question of who would pay for Sanders' agenda is certainly fair game. On the campaign trail, Sanders has stated that he could finance his new initiatives with taxes that would fall almost exclusively on the wealthy, not on the middle class -- a point that one of his senior strategists made again on Monday. Budget experts such as Austan Goolsbee, a University of Chicago economist and former Obama administration adviser, are extremely skeptical of such claims. As Goolsbee wrote in a recent blog post:

Mind you, Sanders is not fiscally irresponsible the way the R tax plans are. He doesn't deny basic arithmetic and he has proposed ways of paying for what he wants to do. The point is that the magnitude of the spending will require a lot of revenue and it's not easy to get it without hitting the middle class.

But when Clinton and her aides talk about the Sanders agenda, they always leave out some critical context. The proposals on health care, college tuition and the like would yield benefits that, in many cases, would flow to the middle class and offset the impact of those new taxes.

In a single-payer health care system, for example, government insurance largely displaces private insurance, which means that taxes go up but premiums go down. For any individual, the effects would depend on a bunch of variables -- like how much that person pays now, the precise contours of the new taxes and whether employers pass along unspent premiums as higher wages. Ultimately some would pay more, but others would pay less. People who have private insurance now would have to give it up, but they'd get something like Medicare, which is both more secure and more popular than private insurance.

A similar logic applies to the rest of Sanders’ agenda. If somehow his plans became law, working parents would have an easier time finding and paying for child care. Kids going to college wouldn’t struggle with crippling tuition bills. Would every middle class American feel better off? No. Would many? Yes. Clinton and her advisers, who know domestic policy as well as anybody in Washington, are well-aware of this.

In short, the Clinton campaign has made a conscious decision here. It is not merely criticizing Sanders for suspicious math. It is suggesting the test for any proposed initiative is what taxes it imposes, regardless of what benefits it might bring.

This is the kind of argument that conservatives make. It might or might not help Clinton win in November. It’s hard to see how it can help progressives win in the long run.

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