Elizabeth Warren’s Big Strategic Error
In last night’s Democratic debate, Elizabeth Warren ducked a question. Asked if her “Medicare for All” plan would raise taxes on the middle class, Warren said costs for the wealthy and big corporations would go up, while costs for middle class families would go down. Moderators and other candidates pushed her on it and she dodged again, giving the same answer, almost word for word, with no mention of taxes.
This repeated, canned response from Warren stood out. For once, she sounded more like a politician than a professor, and not in a good way.
Warren wasn’t lying, but she wasn’t really being honest either. The actual answer is yes, her plan raises taxes on the middle class. But she, like other advocates of Medicare for All, believes the plan will lower healthcare costs enough that middle class households come out ahead. Basically, take what you’re paying in health insurance premiums now, give part of it to the government in exchange for Medicare, and pocket the rest.
Why wouldn’t she say that? Bernie Sanders, whose plan Warren adapted, argues it openly.
It’s probably because the Warren campaign believes promising to raise taxes will turn off voters, and if Warren says it on camera, opponents will use it in attack ads, leaving out the part where she explains how middle class households come out ahead. Therefore, they think it’s better to not-technically-lie about costs going down instead of answer the question directly.
It’s a strategic mistake.
If Warren wins the nomination, Trump and the Republicans will use two main lines of attack: socialism and dishonesty. Warren’s evasive answer on Medicare for All indicates her campaign is more afraid of the socialism attack, but they shouldn’t be.
Republicans will attack Warren as a socialist, and there isn’t much she can do about it. She calls herself a capitalist aiming to make capitalism work for everyone, and her vision looks like European social democracies with market economies, not the command economies of the Soviet Union or Venezuela. But Republicans use the word “socialist” to mean “big government” or “new social programs,” and Warren definitely wants those. She calls for the government to take over health insurance, pushing private companies out of business. It would be the biggest expansion of government since the Great Society, bigger even than Obamacare, and it’ll cost trillions.
There’s no way to do that without government taking in a lot more revenue, and Warren thinks it’s worth it. She speaks passionately about helping kids with cancer and people who get diagnosed with MS; about freeing everyone from insurance company shenanigans and the fear of medical bankruptcy.
Medicare for All is a hard political sell, because the downsides are guaranteed — higher taxes and losing private insurance, which covers about half the population — but the upsides are theoretical. Maybe the promised savings materialize, and the government delivers equal or better healthcare for less money. But maybe they don’t. Americans might not like their insurance company, but the system works well enough for most, and people fear change.
That political challenge is one of the main reasons Obamacare maintained a central role for private insurance. And it’s one of the reasons more centrist Democratic candidates, such as Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, advocate a public option, or “Medicare for all who want it,” rather than a single-payer system like Medicare for All.
But Warren’s going for it, so why not advocate the actual policy — trade-offs and all? As Bernie Sanders argues, if Medicare for All is going to happen, a majority of Americans need to support it. Building that constituency requires selling people on the idea that they’ll come out ahead.
Just Be Honest
There’s some political downside in promising to raise taxes, but it’s not as big a problem for Warren as appearing dishonest. Somehow, her campaign hasn’t registered that dishonesty is Republicans’ main attack against her.
When Trump and right-wing media derogatorily call Warren “Pocahontas,” they’re referencing accusations that she helped herself get ahead by falsely claiming to be Native American. It taps into racism, and opposition to affirmative action, but it’s fundamentally an attack on her authenticity.
Recently, conservative critics began attacking Warren’s claim that she was fired from a teaching job in 1971 because she was pregnant. An October 7 Washington Free Beacon article asserts “County Records Contradict Warren’s Claim She Was Fired Over Pregnancy,” and other right-wing outlets have picked up the accusation. As Warren’s defenders note, the practice was fairly common, and it’s not like the school board would write down “pregnancy” as the official reason, so the supposedly damning documents prove nothing. But no matter the truth of the claim, it’s another example of Warren’s opponents trying to paint her as dishonest.
This line of attack is similar to the one Republicans used against Hillary Clinton, and stands in contrast to the supposed authenticity of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Yes, Trump lies all the time, about things big and small, but unlike Hillary, neither he nor Bernie speak like a polished politician, which many less informed, less ideological voters seem to like.
There’s an element of sexism to this, but strategically, Warren has no choice but to overcome it. Complaining about double standards won’t make them go away.
And the media can’t protect her either. Though after the debate, NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen argued that they should:
Following up on a candidate’s policy proposals, including how they’d pay for them, is completely legitimate. Reporters will ask Warren about it — as they should — and if she keeps giving the same evasive answer, they’ll keep asking. It’s wildly inappropriate for journalists to analyze politicians’ plans with the goal of protecting candidates they like from political attacks.
And it’s so easy for Warren to avoid this problem: just be honest about how Medicare for All will work.
She’s going to get attacked as a socialist who wants to raise middle class taxes no matter what she does. That attack could hurt, but she really does want to expand government, so it’s unavoidable.
But consistently evading the full truth about her healthcare plan would feed directly into the attacks that she’s dishonest. Much better to sell voters on the actual plan than try to hide parts of it.
After all, if anyone can explain complex policies to voters in a way that seems authentic rather than dull or forced, it’s Elizabeth Warren.