The Slatest

Mob of Democratic Candidates Denounces Concept of Using Taxes to Pay for Social Services

Buttigieg gestures towards Warren while speaking.
Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, on Tuesday.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Elizabeth Warren is the Democratic primary front-runner in polls of Iowa and New Hampshire. Joe Biden leads her in national surveys, but he hasn’t gained support since entering the race and keeps saying weird, self-sabotaging things; right now, Warren seems like the bigger threat to wipe out the rest of the field.

Warren’s policy proposals tend toward the ambitious and aggressive, at least as compared with anyone else’s in the field except Bernie Sanders’, and her most prominent “centrist” rival is the aforementioned ex–vice president, who perennially seems like he’s one inappropriate 1950s reference from imploding. Thus, in Tuesday night’s debate in Ohio, a number of Warren’s rivals were basically competing to be Biden’s responsible, moderate understudy, a sensible-pragmatist arms race that led to the strange situation of Democratic presidential candidates falling over each other to denounce the idea of expanding health coverage via taxation as implausible and dangerous, and to denounce taxing the rich in general as unnecessarily divisive and fanciful.

First was Pete Buttigieg, who attacked Warren for her insistence on saying that a “Medicare for All” single-payer system would “lower costs” for the middle class when asked if it would require raising taxes. “A yes or no question that didn’t get a yes or no answer,” Buttigieg said. “This is why people here in the Midwest are so frustrated with Washington in general and Capitol Hill in particular. Your signature is to have a plan for everything, except this. No plan has been laid out to explain how a multitrillion-dollar hole in this plan that Sen. Warren is putting forward is supposed to get filled in.”

Amy Klobuchar piled on. “I appreciate Elizabeth’s work,” she said. “[But] the difference between a plan and a pipe dream is something that you can actually get done.” Said Biden: “On the single most important thing facing the American public, I think it’s important to be straightforward with them. The plan is going to cost at least $30 trillion over 10 years. That is more on a yearly basis than the entire federal budget.”

Now, it is true that instituting universal health care coverage would cost a lot of money and require raising taxes. But it’s also true, as Warren (and Sanders) keep trying to remind everyone, that even a study produced by a Koch brothers–funded libertarian think tank found that it would save the U.S. money on health care overall because it would eliminate or cut back on the many types of medical spending that currently come out of consumers’ pockets. As they could possibly do a better job pointing out, universal coverage systems, rather than being crazy hypotheticals that exist only on paper, have been implemented in America-like countries like Canada and the U.K. without inducing society-ruining catastrophes. As the presence of the word Medicare in the name “Medicare for All” indicates, the proposal would involve the expansion of an existing system whose protection is one of the pillars of the Democratic Party. And as Sanders alluded to at the end of the debate, the idea of enacting M4A—though it’s gotten more polarizing during this campaign—is still supported by a majority of Americans and a large majority of Democrats.

The same is true of Warren’s proposal for a 2 percent annual wealth tax on fortunes of $50 million or more. That one is actually even popular among Republican voters, but Beto O’Rourke still cited it in complaining that “sometimes Sen. Warren is more about being punitive and pitting some parts of the country against each other, instead of lifting people up.” Klobuchar said that while the wealth tax “could work,” Warren needed a “reality check” and “[her] idea is not the only idea.” Buttigieg said he was “all for a wealth tax,” but then seemed to suggest otherwise when he said that “from the industrial Midwest where I live,” such a proposal looked like “Washington politicians, congressmen, and senators saying all the right things, offering the most elegant policy prescriptions, and nothing changes.”

If all you’d seen was Tuesday’s debate, you’d think Warren and Sanders were reviled malcontents with fringe views. Overall, though, both are viewed favorably by large majorities of Democrats—in some polls, more favorably than any other candidate including Biden. The odds are very good that one of them will end up running in the general election against Trump. And so while it might make sense for individual candidates in the primary to frame their two most ambitious competitors as nonrepresentative outliers, it might make more sense for the party overall if the message presented to the public were something closer to the truth.