Opinion - Politics

Taxes are the least of Elizabeth Warren's 'Medicare for All' problems

Key Points
  • Senator Warren avoided giving a direct answer to several questions at last week's Democratic presidential debate about whether her health plan would increase income taxes for the middle class.
  • Compared to Beto O'Rourke's, "Hell yes we're going to take away your AR-15, your AK-47" rallying cry, Warren's inability to admit to supporting a tax hike seems meeker than ever.
  • It contrasts starkly from Warren's otherwise unapologetic and enthusiastic campaign.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks during a town hall event September 19, 2019 in Iowa City, Iowa.
Joshua Lott | Getty Images

America's rough-and-tumble political arena rarely gives candidates a second chance to fix public mistakes made on the campaign trail. But Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has been given more than one opportunity over the past two weeks to clarify her response to a key question about her "Medicare for All" plan… and she's fumbled it each time.

In case you missed it, Senator Warren avoided giving a direct answer to several questions at last week's Democratic presidential debate about whether her health plan would increase income taxes for the middle class. Then on Tuesday on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert she demurred again, prompting Colbert to interrupt and give her his own suggested response to the question, making Warren look even worse.

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Her continued inability to answer directly is reminiscent of a similar fumble by the late Senator Ted Kennedy, who in a 1979 network news interview with anchor Roger Mudd could not give a straight answer as to why he was running for president.

Also making things worse is that this all comes just as another Democratic presidential candidate is notably going all-in with a blunt and controversial statement on gun control.

Compared to Beto O'Rourke's, "Hell yes we're going to take away your AR-15, your AK-47" rallying cry, Warren's inability to admit to supporting a tax hike seems meeker than ever.

But even if Warren added more funding details and strengthened her public responses to questions about taxes, all of these government-funded health coverage plans from Medicare for All to Obamacare continue to have a bigger problem.

It contrasts starkly from Warren's otherwise unapologetic and enthusiastic campaign. Her continued gains in the polls come as little surprise to those who have been following her across the country and seeing how excited and motivated her supporters are compared to her Democratic rivals.

Just as Warren is establishing herself as an energetic and unapologetic standard bearer for liberal progressives, she seems to be choking on the chance to overtake Joe Biden as the front runner.

If you're wondering why all the focus seems to be on Warren's performance on TV and not as much on the actual Medicare for All plan, you're on the right track when it comes to what really matters in American presidential campaigns.

It's a bit of an ugly secret many of us do not admit about ourselves. But the fact is, we're more likely to decide who to vote for based on a candidate's personality and persuasiveness. We're less likely to choose a candidate based on his or her policies.

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There's lots of academic research backing up this premise, but the best and more entertaining explanation of how we make our voting choices was laid out in Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams' 2017 book, Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don't Matter.

Before anyone decries how unfair it is that personal persuasiveness outweighs policy details in political campaigning, it's important to note that Warren only has herself to blame on the policy side as well. That's because she hasn't really released her Medicare for All plan details anyway.

But even if Warren added more funding details and strengthened her public responses to questions about taxes, all of these government-funded health coverage plans from Medicare for All to Obamacare continue to have a bigger problem.

We can quibble about how they'll be paid for; we all know higher taxes or heavier borrowing will be needed at some point. But no one seems to be focusing on the supply side.

Whether you believe healthcare is a human right or a privilege, someone needs to provide that care. Critics can bash Warren for leaving out funding details from her plan, but where are the details in plans from Senators Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris when it comes to providing more doctors, nurses, hospitals, and other facilities for the growing demand for healthcare that will surely come from a Medicare for All plan?

Warren's moment to squander

Come to think of it, where was that part in Obamacare or in President Trump's and GOP attempts to reform the ACA? If Warren thinks it's bad now with reporters and late night hosts grilling her about tax hikes, wait until somebody asks about whether her plan will lead to the virtual rationing and massive wait times for healthcare we see in countries like Great Britain.

Reduced access to care because of demand further outstripping supply would be a much bigger problem for U.S. politicians than a middle-income tax hike.

Polls show that voters are more willing to pay higher taxes in return for lower cost health care. What they won't tolerate are reduced services, especially when it comes to health care, higher taxes or not.

This is Warren's moment. But if she continues to risk squandering her chance to overtake Joe Biden because of an unwillingness to be clear about a policy issue voters actually support, the chances are slim she'll be able to convince the public she has the gravitas to be president.

Jake Novak is a political and economic analyst at Jake Novak News and former CNBC TV producer. You can follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.