Democrats Get Bogged Down In Same Gotcha Tax Question At Every Debate

Several candidates ganged up on Elizabeth Warren for not giving a more direct answer on taxes.
The worst debate question.
The worst debate question.

Despite repeated demands by a moderator and her Democratic presidential opponents, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts refused to take the bait on a question about tax hikes on the debate stage Tuesday night in Ohio.

Moderator Marc Lacey asked Warren if she supported higher middle-class taxes to pay for a national health care program known as “Medicare for All” ― at least the third time essentially the same question has come up at a Democratic debate.

Warren gave the same answer she’s given many times before: “Costs will go up for the wealthy and for big corporations and for hard-working middle-class families, costs will go down,” she said.

Warren focuses on “costs” because her Medicare for All vision would trade higher taxes for lower household costs, and she doesn’t want to focus on the taxes in isolation.

Conventional wisdom holds that middle-class tax hikes are political poison, and research has shown that messaging about tax hikes can leverage negative voter attitudes on government spending and race. Warren has apparently decided a direct answer isn’t worth it.

Lacey pressed Warren, asking if she would explicitly acknowledge, as has rival White House contender Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), that Medicare for All would involve higher taxes. She again refused, stressing instead that overall costs would go down for middle-class families.

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who on some issues has positioned himself as a centrist among the Democratic candidates, pounced.

“We heard it tonight: a yes or no question that didn’t get a yes or no answer,” Buttigieg said. “This is why people in the Midwest are so frustrated with Washington.”

Warren has not outlined exactly how she would pay for Medicare for All, but by refusing to rule out tax increases, she has implied they’d be part of her plan. On Tuesday, she came closer to such an acknowledgment when she said, “We can pay for this.”

Possible funding options that Sanders has suggested in the past include higher payroll taxes and higher taxes on the wealthy. A HuffPost / YouGov poll this week found that pairing Medicare for All with a tax on the super-rich made the health care proposal more popular.

Sanders offered a more forthright explanation of the taxes-and-benefits tradeoff under Medicare for All, a proposal he originally sponsored in the Senate.

“Premiums are gone. Co-payments are gone. Deductibles are gone. All out-of-pocket expenses are gone.” Sanders said, adding that the overwhelming majority of Americans would pay less overall.

“I do think it is appropriate to acknowledge that taxes will go up,” Sanders continued. “They will go up significantly for the wealthy and for virtually everybody, the tax increase will be substantially less ― substantially less than what they were paying for premiums and out-of-pocket expenses.”

Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota praised Sanders for being direct.

“At least Bernie’s being honest here and saying how he’s going to pay for this, and that taxes are going to go up,” Klobuchar said. “I’m sorry, Elizabeth, but you have not said that and I think we owe it to the American people to tell them where we will send the invoice.”

It was faint praise for Sanders because Klobuchar ― along with Buttigieg ― doesn’t support Medicare for All.

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