Bernie's Medicare-for-all and the risk of policy specifics

12/21/2015 12:31:00 PM
I watched parts of the democratic debate on Saturday, and the part that really stood out for me was the Sanders-Clinton exchange on Sanders's Medicare-for-all plan and then his paid family leave plan.

I've written before that a big lesson of the 2008 and 2012 is that offering policy specifics always costs votes. It hardly matters how great the policy idea is—any policy change will harm someone, and even if those someones are almost no one, any policy proposal will be beaten down with an endless parade of sob stories from the few who benefited from the status quo. Elections punish policy innovators. The winning strategy, as we saw in 2008 and 2012, is to offer vague platitudes instead of policy specifics. Offer just enough to signal your supporters that you'd pull their favorite policy levers, but never commit to a specific policy in the midst of an election campaign.

This is excruciating to folks like me who really want to debate policy specifics. Unfortunately, policy specifics won't be on the ballot.

In part because Clinton has absorbed the lesson of her campaign with Obama, Sanders's Medicare-for-all is one of the most specific policy proposals so far in the 2016. It would expand Medicare to all Americans under 65, and raise the payroll tax to pay for it.

Almost immediately, critics charged Sanders with advocating a massive tax hike to pay for his new "spending plan" to expand Medicare to all. Of course these critics ignore the fact that with Medicare, everyone would be able to dump their legally-required private insurance. Under the Roberts doctrine that mandatory private insurance is a tax, the Sanders proposal could constitute a net reduction in taxes by "thousands of dollars" for the average person, to use Sanders's words.

And now we witness the destruction of Sanders's rhetorical ground. Not only has Sanders offered a policy specific which can be directly criticized, his rebuttal to that criticism is just the made-up-on-the-spot-sounding unspecified number of "thousands of dollars" that people will allegedly save under his plan.

Not only did Sanders lose votes by offering a policy specific for opponents to attack, but he's losing even more votes by not having the research to back up his claim. That's just bad staff work.

Clinton has in the past criticized Sanders's health plan as a tax hike on the middle class—she's promised not to raise taxes on families making less than $250,000 a year—but danced around it this time by pivoting to his paid family leave plan, which raises payroll taxes on everyone slightly to cover a new benefit, in contrast to her own version of the plan which raises taxes only on those earning over $250,000 a year. Because most people don't currently pay into a paid-family-leave fund, Sanders can't even claim to be offsetting an existing cost here.

Clinton's attack on Sanders is just a version of the same attack republicans will eventually pull on her. When the republican candidate repeats the charge he'll neglect to mention that her tax is only on income over $250,000. If republicans are forced to acknowledge this at all, it will suddenly become a tax on "job creators" that somehow also hurts middle class workers.

Unfortunately, in an election campaign, policy specifics are just vote-losers. It pains me to admit this.