You didn’t have to be clairvoyant to think that high-flying candidate Elizabeth Warren might have a bull’s-eye on her back in the fourth round of Democratic presidential candidate debates in Ohio Tuesday night. And for the most part she handled the newly intensified attention she received from moderators and rivals alike with her usual articulate and passionate debating skill. But on one point that has become a sort of hardy perennial of the debate series, she drew sustained fire and responded in a way that may draw mixed reviews.
After a preliminary round of questions in which all 12 candidates were able to comment on the impeachment proceedings against President Trump, Marc Lacey of the New York Times went right back to the well about middle-class taxes and Medicare for All:
LACEY: Senator Warren, we’ve proposed — you’ve proposed some sweeping plans, free public college, free universal childcare, eliminating most Americans’ college debt. And you’ve said how you’re going to pay for those plans. But you have not specified how you’re going to pay for the most expensive plan, Medicare for All. Will you raise taxes on the middle class to pay for it, yes or no?
WARREN: So I have made clear what my principles are here, and that is costs will go up for the wealthy and for big corporations, and for hard-working middle-class families, costs will go down.
Lacey wasn’t about to let that go by him, so he asked again:
LACEY: Senator Warren, to be clear, Senator Sanders acknowledges he’s going to raise taxes on the middle class to pay for Medicare for All. You’ve endorsed his plan. Should you acknowledge it, too?
WARREN: So the way I see this, it is about what kinds of costs middle-class families are going to face. So let me be clear on this. Costs will go up for the wealthy. They will go up for big corporations. And for middle-class families, they will go down. I will not sign a bill into law that does not lower costs for middle-class families.
As someone who very explicitly suggested Warren address skepticism about Medicare for All’s promises in just this way, I was impressed by this approach. But she unfortunately combined it with a refusal to answer Lacey’s specific question about taxes, so he invited Pete Buttigieg, who recently started running ads criticizing Warren and Sanders on this subject, to join in his demand:
LACEY: Mayor Buttigieg, you say Senator Warren has been, quote, “evasive” about how she’s going to pay for Medicare for All. What’s your response?
BUTTIGIEG: Well, we heard it tonight, a yes or no question that didn’t get a yes or no answer. Look, this is why people here in the Midwest are so frustrated with Washington in general and Capitol Hill in particular. Your signature, Senator, is to have a plan for everything. Except this.
Still Warren wouldn’t budge, and instead counterpunched by calling Buttigieg’s “Medicare for All Who Want It” proposal “Medicare for all who can afford it.” So Lacey impleaded Warren’s policy buddy, Bernie Sanders, into the argument:
At the end of the day, the overwhelming majority of people will save money on their health-care bills. But I do think it is appropriate to acknowledge that taxes will go up. They’re going to go up significantly for the wealthy. And for virtually everybody, the tax increase they pay will be substantially less — substantially less than what they were paying for premiums and out-of-pocket expansions.
BUTTIGIEG: Well, at least that’s a straightforward answer, but there’s a better way.
LACEY: Senator Warren, will you acknowledge what the senator just said about taxes going up?
No, she wouldn’t. Lacey dragged in Amy Klobuchar and Joe Biden to beat up on Warren on the same point. Nevertheless, she persisted in ignoring the tax question and focusing on total health-care costs and the perfidy of the private health-care industry. Sanders tried to come to her rescue:
SANDERS: I get a little bit tired — I must say — of people defending a system which is dysfunctional, which is cruel, 87 million uninsured, 30,000 people dying every single year, 500,000 people going bankrupt for one reason, they came down with cancer.
I will tell you what the issue is here. The issue is whether the Democratic Party has the guts to stand up to the health-care industry, which made $100 billion in profit, whether we have the guts to stand up to the corrupt, price-fixing pharmaceutical industry, which is charging us the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs.
Eventually Klobuchar let her off the hook by changing the subject to long-term care, and Buttigieg trained his fire elsewhere. And Warren returned to her generally effective talking points.
Clearly, debate moderators and Warren’s rivals think her refusal to say out loud that her health-care plans will require a tax hike for the middle class is a big deal. And just as clearly, Warren thinks it’s a red herring and that her overall position on health care and Medicare for All is more compelling than an isolated focus on how the government’s share of the costs will be financed.
We’ll see how it plays out in the media echo chamber over this debate. If in the next debate in November moderators come back to this question of Medicare for All and taxes, we’ll know that whatever the public thinks, the chattering classes believe they must hear Warren submit.
Note: this post originally attributed a debate statement made by Bernie Sanders to Elizabeth Warren, due to an error in the Washington Post transcript. It has been corrected.