Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is coming under increasing pressure from her 2020 rivals to spell out how she’d pay for her “Medicare for All” proposal.
The pressure comes as Warren builds momentum in the presidential primary race and suggests she is likely to come under a harsher spotlight as other candidates seek to compete with her for the 2020 Democratic nomination.
Warren has been asked several times whether taxes would have to go up on the middle class to pay for her universal health care plan, most notably at the debate earlier this month in Houston.
She has consistently avoided giving a yes or no answer, saying instead that middle-class families’ overall health costs would decline but without specifying whether their taxes would increase.
Other Democrats are now accusing her of being less than candid or even dishonest about the consequences Medicare for All, an issue that has split the 2020 Democratic presidential field.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the front-runner in the race who is trying to hold off Warren, has made the issue central to his attacks on Medicare for All, saying that at least Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has been honest that middle-class taxes would have to go up.
Sanders has put out a paper on potential financing options for Medicare for All, which include tax increases that would only apply to the rich and corporations as well as a 4 percent premium paid by employees that would apply to families making more than $29,000. He has explicitly said that taxes would go up for the middle class but that health care costs would go down.
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has lost ground to Warren in recent months, last week offered one of the sharper criticisms of the Massachusetts senator over the issue.
“I think that if you are proud of your plan and it’s the right plan, you should defend it in straightforward terms,” Buttigieg said in an interview on CNN.
“And I think it’s puzzling that when everybody knows the answer to that question, of whether her plan and Sen. Sanders’s plan will raise middle-class taxes, is ‘yes,’ why you wouldn’t just say so and then explain why you think that’s the better way forward.”
In a sign of how broadly the issue is being scrutinized, “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert confronted Warren directly about taxes and Medicare for All last week, effectively calling her out for dodging on the issue.
“How are you going to pay for it?” Colbert asked. “Are you going to be raising the middle-class taxes?”
Warren responded by saying that “costs are going to go up for the wealthiest Americans, for big corporations … and hard-working middle class families are going to see their costs going down.”
“But will their taxes go up?” Colbert asked again.
“But here’s the thing,” Warren responded.
Colbert interrupted her.
“But here’s the thing,” he said. “I’ve listened to these answers a few times before and I just want to make a parallel suggestion to you that you might defend the taxes perhaps that you’re not mentioning in your sentence.”
Warren supports the bill authored by Sanders that eliminates private insurers, but that would also eliminate deductibles and copays and would ensure everyone is covered.
Warren has sidestepped the tax issue in interviews but has said that corporations and the wealthy will pay for the costs of Medicare for All. She’s also emphasized that the nation will see lower health care costs as a result of the plan.
“The answer is on Medicare for All, costs are going to go up for wealthier individuals and costs are going to go up for giant corporations,” Warren said at the debate earlier this month in Houston. “But for hard-working families across this country, costs are going to go down and that’s how it should work under Medicare for All in our health care system.”
Some Warren allies have defended her approach while criticizing those questioning her about whether Medicare for All will lead to higher middle-class taxes.
“Medicare for All will greatly reduce costs on the middle class, including premiums and $5,000 deductibles that make insurance policies unusable for many families,” said Joe Dinkin, campaigns director for the Working Families Party, which endorsed Warren last week. “That kind of question is a ridiculous trap and Warren navigated it deftly. It’s bad journalism not to recognize the larger savings from the disappearance of premiums in any question like that.”
Adam Green — co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has also endorsed Warren — said that when it comes to Warren’s answers to the tax question, “there’s growing frustration by pundits, but there’s growing admiration by Democratic voters who are frustrated with Democratic politicians repeating right-wing talking points to their detriment.”
But Marc Goldwein of the budget watchdog group the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget took issue with the progressive criticism.
He said “it’s not only a fair, but it’s a really important question” to ask candidates how they’re going to pay for getting rid of premiums and deductibles.
The Democratic race has been dominated by the debate over health care, with Warren and Sanders backing Medicare for All and Biden, Buttigieg and other candidates backing more moderate proposals that would maintain a role for private health insurance.
Buttigieg released a plan last week that allows people with insurance through their employer to either keep it or join a new government plan. He has said he’d pay for his plan through unspecified cost savings and corporate tax changes.
Democrats who oppose Medicare for All are warning that the multitrillion-dollar price tag will bankrupt the government. And they say that Medicare for All, although popular in the polls, is a surefire general election loser, as voters will be scared off by the higher taxes and the prospect of losing their private health insurance plans.
In a preview of how the issue could play out in the general election, Americans for Tax Reform, the group led by Grover Norquist, has been highlighting a portion of Colbert’s interview with Warren.
“If a Democrat refuses to answer a question about whether they will raise taxes you know it’s because the answer is ‘yes,’” said Erin Perrine, a spokeswoman for President Trump’s campaign. “Elizabeth Warren’s government takeover of health care eliminates private health insurance and gives free health care to illegal immigrants paid for by hardworking Americans.”
Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said that if he were advising Warren, he’d tell her to say taxes will go up but that people’s overall health costs would be lower. He argued that Warren’s indirectness could be a problem both in the primary and the general election.
“By not answering the question directly, it seems evasive, and that’s not a message you want to send,” Bannon said. “Bite the bullet because you can make the sale.”