(David J. Phillip)
Opinion writer

After a Democratic presidential debate in July, MSNBC host Chris Matthews interviewed Elizabeth Warren and tried relentlessly to get her say that if we pass Medicare-for-all, taxes would go up. She refused to give him the sound bite he was after, insisting that the real question is whether the total amount people pay for health care — through taxes, but also in premiums, deductibles, and co-pays — goes up or down, and she insisted that total costs would go down for most people.

At Thursday’s debate it happened again, but this time it was ABC’s George Stephanopoulos acting as though it was of pressing importance to get the words “Taxes will go up” to pass Warren’s lips. He asked her first to “make that admission” that middle class taxes would increase under Medicare-for-all, and when she didn’t, he came back again. Here’s part of the exchange:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Direct question. You said middle-class families are going to pay less. But will middle-class taxes go up to pay for the program? I know you believe that the deductibles and the premiums will go down. Will middle-class taxes go up? Will private insurance be eliminated?

WARREN: Look, what families have to deal with is cost, total cost. That’s what they have to deal with. And understand, families are paying for their health care today [...]

And 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. 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.

Warren is obviously determined not to give people like Matthews and Stephanopoulos what they’re after. The question that interests me is, why are they so determined to get her to say that taxes would go up?

I suspect that if you asked them why the answer to that question is so important to them, they’d give you a bunch of substance-free hemming and hawing about how it’s a key political question and therefore they have to get an answer to it.

But if you pressed them and said, “But why does it actually matter? Why is it more important than the total cost people pay?”, they wouldn’t be able to come up with even a halfway plausible response.

That’s because from where they sit, there is almost no goal more important than creating moments that are dramatic and controversial, and will be replayed and discussed on their own networks and in other news outlets. Drama and controversy occur when a candidate says something that generates a strong reaction, often in the form of harsh criticism from the other party.

If the question you’ve put to a candidate winds up in an attack ad against them, you’ve done your job. The fact that Republicans would attack Warren for saying “Taxes will go up” is precisely why they want to get her to say it.

There’s also a degree to which TV anchors and pundits offer an unspoken acceptance of a basic Republican idea, that taxes are somehow uniquely bad. You can see it in the way Matthews pressed Warren, acknowledging that total costs may go down but saying he didn’t really care, because what matters to him is whether taxes go up.

Which, when you think about it, is utterly bonkers. The average insurance premium for an employer-provided family plan is nearly $20,000 a year. If that’s what you were paying, and I told you that I could give you back that $20,000 but your taxes would go up by $10,000 so you’d wind up with $10,000 more than you had to begin with, and you replied, “No deal — I don’t want to pay higher taxes!” you’d be a complete fool.

It’s almost as if we’re starting from the assumption that what we pay now is zero, so premiums that would disappear are irrelevant and the only question is how much taxes might increase.

This operates not just at the level of what individuals pay but at the level of what we pay as a society. One study from a conservative think tank determined that Bernie Sanders’ Medicare-for-all plan would cost $32 trillion over ten years, a figure that has been repeated approximately 32 trillion times to declare how monumentally costly it would be. But according to the government’s projections, the current system will cost about $50 trillion over the same time period, meaning Sanders’ plan is much cheaper than keeping things how they are, whatever else you might think of it.

Yet I have never once heard a politician asked, “You don’t support major reform to the health system, so under your plan we’ll have to pay $50 trillion for heath care over the next ten years. Where do you intend to get that $50 trillion?”

I’ve also never heard anyone press Sanders or Warren on whether, and by how much, total costs for families really will go down under their plans. Is the median family going to pay $500 less, or $1,500, or $5,000? We ought to know, at least to the greatest extent we can determine it.

Just to be clear, it’s not illegitimate to ask a candidate how much they intend to raise taxes. The problem comes when the person doing the asking has no intention of putting the answer they get in an accurate, informative context. Imagine if that’s what everyone was really after.