Corporate Journalists Push Tax Attack on Medicare for All

Most people really like the idea of Medicare for All. So it will take a concerted effort to persuade them they actually don’t like it—and corporate media are more than happy to pitch in.

Bloomberg‘s Sahil Kapur reported (9/23/19) that centrist think tank Third Way commissioned an August poll on how to turn people off of Medicare for All, and one of the strongest tactics turned out to be emphasizing what the plan would cost taxpayers. Lo and behold, the tax line has become a central focus of media coverage of Medicare for All.

Polling found messages that make people both more and less likely to support Medicare for All (Bloomberg, 9/23/19)—but somehow only the negative messages found their way into corporate media questioning.

It’s not the first poll to try out different arguments on Medicare for All; the Kaiser Family Foundation put out a poll in January (1/23/19) that gave people varying bits of information about the program to see how such knowledge changed their view of it. When simply asked if they favored a national healthcare plan, people gave Medicare for All a +14 net favorability rating. When told it would “require most Americans to pay more in taxes,” that plummeted to -23. On the other hand, when told it would “eliminate all health insurance premiums and reduce out-of-pocket health care costs for most Americans,” Medicare for All’s favorability rating soared to +37.

Obviously, messaging matters. Sure, people don’t like taxes—but ultimately most people care very little whether their personal financial obligation for healthcare is paid to the government or to a private insurer; what they care about is how much they’re paying. For most people—and for poor and middle-class people in particular—those total costs should go down under Medicare for All. The responsible thing to do, from the journalist’s perspective, would be to clarify what people would be paying overall for their healthcare under different candidates’ plans, not to cherry pick half the equation.

But that would assume a responsible media.

Journalists wielding the Kaiser poll often reported only the parts that included the negative messaging. In the Washington Post (8/14/19) , for example, Sean Sullivan quoted only the finding about higher taxes causing reduced support. He followed with a counter from Sanders’ camp, that “it would be more than offset by savings they would achieve from not having to pay healthcare premiums and other associated costs”—but then why not provide the relevant finding from the poll that that information caused an even larger increase in support?

When Bernie Sanders appeared on ABC‘s This Week on June 30, George Stephanopoulos presented him with the Kaiser poll’s finding about the information that reduced support for Medicare for All, including higher taxes and eliminating private insurance, conveniently ignoring the information that increases support. “So it appears you’re pushing something people say they don’t want,” Stephanopoulos concluded.

When Sanders explained the missing information—that when you tell Americans that their benefits would be expanded and their costs would go down, support increases—Stephanopoulos was obstinate:

But as you know, for a lot of Democrats, the question is how you get there. And it’s true. You tell people you’re going to raise their taxes, support goes down. You tell people that they can’t have private health insurance, support goes down. And that’s led to some of your opponents to say, yeah, how about Medicare for everyone who wants it, and if it works, if this public option works, then the private health insurance are going to wither away anyway.

Sanders replied:

If I said to you, George, let’s say you’re self-employed and you’re spending $15,000 or $20,000 a year out of pocket expenses, premiums and so forth. And I said, George, you’re going to pay $7,000, $8,000 more in taxes, but you’re not going to have to pay your premiums. You’re probably going to say, where can I sign up? People are going to spend less on Medicare for All.

Stephanopoulos, apparently trying to be tough, gave a nonsensical final reply:

I’ll tell you what I might say, senator. I might say, senator, those taxes are going to be certain. Those taxes are coming no matter what, with the hope that your program is going to work.

Actually, if Stephanopoulos were being honest, he would admit that as someone who makes $15 million or more a year, he’s one of the few people whose taxes would likely go up more than his premiums would go down.

Stephanopoulos stuck with the tax question when he was given the opportunity to ask healthcare questions in the ABC-hosted debate (9/12/19):

Senator Warren, let me take that to you, particularly on what Senator Biden was saying there about healthcare. He has actually praised Bernie Sanders for being candid about his healthcare plan…about the fact that middle-class taxes are going to go up and most of private insurance is going to be eliminated. Will you make that same admission?

Stephanopoulos kept that conversation going for four more of the debate’s 15 healthcare questions.

In the CNN debate (7/30/19), too, the journalist moderators raised the specter of taxes, asking Warren whether she was ” ‘with Bernie’ on Medicare for All when it comes to raising taxes on middle-class Americans to pay for it?”—and sticking with the question for the next four prompts.

Sanders has spelled out his answer on taxes many times, but some journalists just can’t let it go. For instance, take this statement he made to CNN‘s Jake Tapper (7/28/19):

I do believe that, in a progressive way, people will have to pay taxes. The wealthy will obviously pay the lion’s share of those taxes. But at the end of the day, the vast majority of the American people will pay substantially less for the healthcare that they now receive, because we’re going to do away with hundreds of billions of dollars of administrative waste. We’re going to do away with the incredible profiteering of the insurance companies and the drug companies. So people will be paying, in some cases, more in taxes, but, overall, because they’re not going to pay premiums, deductibles, co-payments, they will be paying less for their healthcare.

Pretty clear, right? Not to Tapper, who hung on to the taxation frame:

So, is Vice President Biden correct that anybody who says Medicare for all is going to happen, but we’re not going to raise taxes on anybody or on the middle class is a fantasy world?

Sanders tried to explain again:

Well, obviously, healthcare is not free. Right now, we pay it for through premiums and out-of-pocket expenses. In Canada, it’s paid through taxes. We will have to do that.

Tapper (estimated income: $4 million) just kept going:

A senior aide to former Vice President Biden is laying out his campaign’s debate strategy in a new memo that they issued this weekend. This strategist writes—quote—”He’s going to draw contrasts where there are policy disagreements in the field, like on healthcare. Booker, Gillibrand, Harris and Warren all have signed on to Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for all plan, which means higher taxes on the middle class. That’s a nonstarter for Joe Biden.”

It’s unclear how Tapper thought Sanders could answer the same question yet another way.

CNN‘s Erin Burnett went into a similar spin cycle two weeks earlier (7/15/19), urging Biden spokesperson Symone Sanders (with remarkable alacrity and specificity) to make a tax-based attack on Bernie Sanders’ healthcare plan:

As a general idea, Symone, a lot of people like the idea of Medicare for All, right? And that’s in part because it sort of rings like it’s free, Medicare for All, right? But it is not free. It has an estimated price tag of $3 trillion a year. People who are on Medicare could pay huge amounts of money out of pocket for things like cancer drugs, which almost certainly means payroll tax, income tax increases, right? It is not free, but it sounds that way to a lot of people. How can you explain that to Democratic-based voters that Medicare for All may sound good but doesn’t really come out that way?

After Symone Sanders tried to talk about Biden’s own healthcare proposal instead of attacking Medicare for All, Burnett (who makes an estimated $3 million a year) held on tight: “Are you trying to explain to voters that Medicare for All is not free, right? It comes at immense cost. You’re trying to come up with another option.”

After still more resistance, Burnett replied: “I get what you’re saying. You want to talk about yours and not theirs. But the reason I’m pushing so hard on this is that [Medicare for All] is popular.”

Jim Kessler, Third Way’s executive vice president for policy, told Bloomberg‘s Kapur (9/23/19) that their poll shows that “Trump is deeply underwater on healthcare and the only lifeline that could pull him to shore is Medicare for All.”

Actually, Trump’s lifeline is not Medicare for All, which—as Burnett and the rest know—is quite popular. It’s Kessler and the corporate journalists who are doing their survey-informed best to sink that popular, life-saving plan.