Tuesday night’s Democratic debate featured a vociferous attack on Elizabeth Warren over one specific aspect of health care, coming from a debate moderator, Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg. They all accused her of being evasive about the cost of Medicare-for-all, and they all did it in a way that could have been scripted by Grover Norquist and the rest of the Republican Party’s anti-tax activists.

Unfortunately, Warren missed the opportunity to clarify not just what she supports but also why the attacks on her are so misconceived.

Some time ago, Warren made a decision to refuse to answer one very specific question, the one Marc Lacey of the New York Times asked her in the debate: “Will you raise taxes on the middle class to pay for it, yes or no?”

Warren’s position is that what matters isn’t the taxes you pay for health care, it’s your total health-care costs: taxes plus premiums plus out-of-pocket costs such as co-pays and deductibles.

Former vice president Joe Biden and others attacked Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) at the fourth Democratic presidential debate in Columbus, Ohio on Oct. 15. (The Washington Post)

She clearly believes that reporters are trying to bait her into uttering the words “I will raise taxes,” a sound bite that will then be used against her, so she refuses to do it. That fact has been seized on by some of her opponents. Buttigieg calls her “evasive,” and said in the debate, “We heard it tonight, a yes or no question that didn’t get a yes or no answer.”

Klobuchar added, “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. And 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’re going to send the invoice.”

Here’s how Biden put it:

Well, the senator said — she’s being vague on the issue of — actually, both are being vague on the issue of Medicare-for-all. No, look, here’s the deal. Come on. It costs $30 trillion. Guess what? That’s over $3 trillion — it’s more than the entire federal budget [...] If you eliminated the entire Pentagon, every single thing, plane, ship, troop, the buildings, everything, satellites, it would get you — it would pay for a total of four months. Four months. Where do you get the rest? Where does it come from?

For the record, $3 trillion is not more than the federal budget, which in 2019 is $4.4 trillion. But the details of the costs are something to address at an another time; for now I’m concerned with the premise underlying these criticisms, which can be described this way: Paying a dollar in taxes to fund health insurance is worse than paying a dollar in health insurance premiums.

When you put it that way it’s absurd, but that’s the premise: Raising taxes on middle-class Americans is so awful, so dangerous, so catastrophic that no question is more vital to answer, as specifically as possible, than exactly how much taxes might go up under any particular plan. That’s at a time when the average premium for a private employer-provided family insurance plan is now more than $20,000 a year.

Here’s the answer Warren gave:

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.

The only problem is that while she rejects the premise of the tax question, it would be even better if she also explained why it’s important to reject the premise of the tax question.

You might say that she talks about this in the way she does because saying you’ll raise taxes is politically toxic. But when we just accept that instead of pushing back on it, we ensure that it remains politically toxic. And that’s of course just what Republicans want. They want you to believe that if you give $15,000 to the government and get health insurance in return then you’re oppressed, but if you give $20,000 to a corporation and get health insurance in return then you’re free.

Which is why I would have liked to hear Warren say something like this:

I understand that you’re trying to get me to say the words “Taxes will go up,” because then everyone can say how politically dangerous it is. So let’s talk about taxes and health care. It’s simple: Taxes are what we pay, as a country, to get what we want. We want a military to defend us, so we pay taxes. We want air traffic controllers to keep planes from flying into each other, so we pay taxes. We want national parks, and medical research, and roads and bridges and police and firefighters and schools, so we pay taxes.
And just as we decided that every child deserves an education so we created a school system, we can and should decide that every American deserves health coverage, so we’ll create a national health system — one where nobody goes without coverage because they can’t afford it, nobody goes bankrupt because they got sick, nobody avoids going to the doctor because their company’s plan has a big deductible, and all the anxiety and fear around paying for health care is just not something we have to deal with anymore.
Of course taxes are going to pay for it, just like they pay for all those other things we decided we want. Why is it that we act as though it’s an awful thing to pay for health coverage with taxes, but it’s somehow better if we all pay even more to corporations making profits off us?
If you think that whether somebody’s taxes go up or down is more important than whether the total cost they pay for health care goes up or down, you can’t pretend you actually care about their pocketbooks. You’re just playing a game, a game whose rules were written by Republicans.
In this case they’re determined to keep the wealthy from contributing their fair share while the rest of us empty our wallets so insurance companies can keep making billions in profits, but it’s how they keep us from addressing all kinds of pressing problems. They always say the same thing: “We can’t do that — we might have to pay for it with taxes!” It’s the wrong question. The right questions are what we want to do, how it should work, and whether the tax system is fair.
That’s why I won’t answer that question the way you want me to.

To be clear, this isn’t about whether you support Medicare-for-all or something more like the public option plans that Biden, Klobuchar and Buttigieg propose. It’s deeper than that. To avoid doing Republicans’ work for them, you need to make sure everyone understands what it is you’re rejecting. Unfortunately, a whole bunch of candidates have decided that the way to attack Warren is to validate Republican anti-tax ideology.

Read more: