“How Will You Pay For It?” Is the New “But Her Emails”

Even as all eyes in the political world focus on the rapidly-moving impeachment process, there is a perverse phenomenon occurring around fiscal policy.

On one hand, the first half-hour or so of the latest Democratic presidential debate was focused on how the candidates would pay for their healthcare proposals. The unspoken presumption of the conversation was that every candidate’s plan required a deficit-neutral pay-for, usually in the form of tax increases. Centrist candidates ganged up on Bernie Sanders for acknowledging he would increase taxes on most Americans to pay for it (while eliminating premiums and other costs, thus saving most Americans money overall), and on Elizabeth Warren for demurring as to the specifics. This in turn has led Warren to be forced back to the policy table, drawing up a plan that will likely either play into disingenuous Republican hands by requiring a modest tax increase, or that will fall short of eliminating private insurance altogether, thus infuriating some progressive activists and creating accusations of dishonesty.

Every Democratic candidate is stuck in between two unsavory positions on healthcare: either open yourself to unfair GOP attacks by proposing the same sort of system that gives people better care at lower cost in nearly every developed country in the world, or avoid those attacks but promote a half-measures plan that doesn’t actually solve the cost problem.

But whether one takes the cautious and ineffectual Biden approach, the cagey Warren approach, or the open yet politically risky Sanders approach, everything is predicated on the notion that a candidate’s healthcare plan must be paid for.

Meanwhile, Trump and the GOP have blown open a nearly $1 trillion dollar deficit hole, a 26% increase from 2018 despite benefiting from an economy that is running at full tilt by traditional metrics. They’ve done this mostly through a combination of giant tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, as well as through huge increases to the military budget and handouts to make up for Trump’s self-inflicted trade war.

None of this Republican spending was paid for, any more than the Reagan tax cuts were, or the Bush tax cuts, or the invasion of Iraq, or any of the other federal largesse Republicans have doled out over the decades to wealthy corporations, shareholders, military contractors, fossil fuel interests and industries disproportionately benefiting their rural/exurban white male base.

Not only was none of it paid for, there was barely any debate over paying for it, either in the halls of Congress or on the campaign trail. The Republican debates in 2016 featured nary a word about how to pay for their tax cut and spending proposals. Despite the power of the supposed Tea Party, none of the GOP candidates were forced back to the policy table to add pay-fors to their plans.

It seems that only Democrats actually have to figure out how to pay for budget priorities. Money spent on warfare abroad and obscenely wealthy interests at home requires no sacrifice or justification, but every cent spent on the basic dignity and welfare of the majority of the citizenry must be balanced and accounted for. No political system can function fairly when only one side is forced to pay for its priorities. Yet the notion that Democrats alone must shoulder this burden is such a deeply ingrained conventional wisdom in America that when newer progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently began to challenge it, it came as a shock to the entire discourse.

Moreover, the other reality of the healthcare debate is that none of the candidates’ plans are likely to come to fruition in anything resembling their proposed form. Much as the Affordable Care Act languished in the inept hands of Max Baucus and was throttled by Joe Lieberman’s petty revanchism, so too will any plan proposed by Biden, Warren or Sanders be subject to the approval of the most moderate Democrats in the Senate. And even that assumes first that the Democratic Party retakes the Senate at all in 2020, which is no guarantee, and second that the party figures out some way around the filibuster, either through eliminating it entirely or bypassing it through reconciliation. Absent either of those, any healthcare plan will require at least seven Republican Senators under even the most optimistic 2020 election projections for the left.

And yet, an enormous amount of the media debate in the 2020 election will focus on how the Democratic nominee intends to pay for priorities like healthcare and climate change mitigation. Even as the Republicans blow ever-bigger holes in the national budget without the slightest concern for how they will be paid for.

Just as the press focused relentlessly on Hillary Clinton’s emails in 2016 while ignoring the gaping maw of Trump’s national security risks, so too will the question of how budget priorities will be paid for dominate the election coverage even as Republicans have no obligation to meet the same level of scrutiny.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.