In a survey of 10 Democratic presidential debates spanning eight months, In These Times found that moderators have asked candidates a total of 21 questions about how they plan to pay for their political agendas. In every single case, moderators demanded to know who will bear the cost of social goods like Medicare for All, climate change mitigation and free college. There was not a single instance where a debate moderator asked a candidate how she or he plans to pay for U.S. wars.
Debate moderators have tremendous power to shape political discourse, and the cumulative effect of this line of questioning is to give the overarching impression that U.S. society cannot afford programs that save or improve lives, or prevent planetary catastrophe. But when it comes to U.S. militarism — which accounts for roughly half of the discretionary federal budget — cost is apparently never an issue.
Medicare for All has been the primary target. Of the 21 “How will you pay for it?” questions, 14 raised concern about the program, described by Bernie Sanders as a “single-payer, national health insurance program to provide everyone in America with comprehensive healthcare coverage, free at the point of service.” An additional question raised concern about proposals for “new” government healthcare benefits. (This count includes questions that simultaneously raised concerns about other programs.)
On July 3, 2019, night one of the second democratic debate, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked four questions in close succession, grilling candidates on how Medicare for All would be paid for. “At the last debate, you said you’re, quote, ‘with Bernie on Medicare for All,’” he said to Elizabeth Warren. “Now, Senator Sanders has said that people in the middle class will pay more in taxes to help pay for Medicare for all, though that will be offset by the elimination of insurance premiums and other costs. Are you also, quote, ‘with Bernie’ on Medicare for All’ when it comes to raising taxes on middle-class Americans to pay for it?”
CNN’s Abby Phillip took a similar line of questioning at the seventh Democratic debate on January 14. “Senator Sanders, you’ve consistently refused to say exactly how much your Medicare for All plan is going to cost,” she said. “Don’t voters deserve to see the price tag before you send them a bill that could cost tens of trillions of dollars?” Her next question was for Joe Biden: “Vice President Biden,” she said, “does Senator Sanders owe voters a price tag on his healthcare plan?”
The implication of these moderators’ questions — that the cost of Medicare for All is so great it will hurt ordinary people — disregards the tremendous harm being inflicted on ordinary people right now by a staggeringly expensive healthcare system.
According to a Gallup poll published in December 2019, 25% of people in the United States said that “they or a family member put off treatment for a serious medical condition in the past year because of the cost” — an increase of 6% over the previous year. Research in 2019 found that 66.5% of all bankruptcies were because of medical issues — either inability to pay for the cost or time missed from work (the Affordable Care Act did not make a dent in these numbers).
The “middle class,” whom moderates claim to champion, is vulnerable under the status quo: According to the the Federal Reserve’s 2018 Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking, one third of Americans deemed middle income can’t afford a $400 emergency. In a society where Americans are forced to turn to GoFundMe to raise money for cancer treatment or insulin, moderators could have chosen, instead, to probe how candidates will treat free and universal medical care as their highest priority.
Medicare for All hasn’t been the only target. Since the debates began, there have been at least three questions about how climate crisis mitigation will be paid for. One, asked on September 12 by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, lumped in the Green New Deal with a handful of other social programs. “Both Senators Warren and Sanders want to replace Obamacare with Medicare for all,” Stephanopoulos said to Joe Biden. “You want to build on Obamacare, and not scrap it. They proposed spending far more than you to combat climate change and tackle student loan debt, and they would raise more in taxes than you to pay for their programs. Are Senators Warren and Sanders pushing too far beyond where Democrats want to go, and where the country needs to go?”
But when it comes to climate change, there is no middle ground between “pushing too far” and not doing enough. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said in October 2018 that we have 12 years to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5°C — an outcome that could prevent the worst of droughts, floods, storms, extreme weather and the resulting human deaths. Keeping global warming below catastrophic levels “would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” the IPCC says. By reflexively putting the Green New Deal in the category of programs that try to do too much too soon, Stephanopoulos sent the false message to the debate’s 14 million viewers that society does not need dramatic action to stem the climate crisis — and should regard with skepticism any programs that promise ambitious, bold action.
The questions didn’t stop there. Three total raised concerns about the cost of cancelling student debt and providing free college. On night two of the first Democratic debate, June 27, 2019, NBC’s Savannah Guthrie said, “Senator Harris there’s a lot of talk in this primary about new government benefits such as student loan cancellation, free college, healthcare and more. Do you think that Democrats have a responsibility to explain how they will pay for every proposal?” Such a question disregards the economic and moral crisis of education debt, which has left half of student loan borrowers with the impression that they will be in debt forever, according to a 2019 survey by Fidelity. Dressed in the ostensibly morally neutral terms of budgeting, such questions — in fact — deal out the moral judgment that the plight of these borrowers should not be a priority.
Other “How will you pay for it?” questions included one targeting Andrew Yang’s proposal for a guaranteed income and one targeting Kamala Harris’ proposal for paid family leave. Perhaps the most eyebrow-raising question was put to Warren by the Washington Post’s Ashley Parker: “You’ve said that the border wall that President Trump has proposed is, quote, ‘a monument to hate and division.’ Would you ask taxpayers to pay to take down any part of the wall on the nation’s southern border?”
This question exposes the right-wing ideology that underpins “What about the taxpayers?” questions. The border wall is a symbol and an instrument of racist ideology, at a time of escalating crises of deaths and detentions at the border. Yet by appealing to some unknown cost to “taxpayers,” Parker focuses her question on the cost of tearing it down — not the tremendous moral cost of letting it stand.
The normalcy of war
The moral bankruptcy of this deficit scaremongering is exposed by the fact that the financial costs of U.S. wars, military base expansions, drone strikes, proxy battles and hostile military exercises were never once interrogated by debate moderators. The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act — approved by Democrats and Republicans alike — provides President Trump a $738 billion military budget, a $22 billion increase over the prior year. Meanwhile, the United States spends more on the military than the next seven countries combined.
According to the logic of fiscal responsibility, such questions would be especially relevant because many candidates are embracing costly militaristic programs. At the tenth Democratic debate on February 25, Michael Bloomberg was asked if he would “pull all combat troops out of the Middle East.” The billionaire replied, “No. You want to cut it back as much as you can, but I think, if we learned something from 9⁄11, people plan things overseas and execute them here. We have to be able to stop terrorism. And there’s no guarantees that you’re going to be able to do it, but we have to have some troops in places where terrorists congregate, and to not do so is just irresponsible.”
While the exact implications of this statement are unclear, it appears Bloomberg is embracing the so-called “war on terror,” a nebulous term that encompasses many of the U.S. wars fought following September 11, 2001. According to the Costs of War project of Brown University, post‑9/11 wars have cost a total of $6.4 trillion. Yet, no moderator cited this high price tag nor asked Bloomberg how he plans to pay for the continuation of such wars. Of course, U.S. wars are bad because of the human lives they take and harm — and this would still be the case if the wars cost zero dollars. One estimate finds that the U.S. war in Iraq killed 1 million Iraqi people — a horrific injustice and cruelty no matter the price tag. But this inconsistency in moderators’ deficit fearmongering reveals that the true function of this handwringing is to advance right-wing ideologies aimed at shrinking public goods while expanding the violent apparatus of U.S. empire.
Moderators have had plenty of other opportunities to ask candidates about how they will pay for U.S. militarism. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, whose foreign policy positions have been vague and have prone to shifting, just dropped out of the presidential race, but the lack of scrutiny given to his positions remains instructive. He said in a June 2019 foreign policy speech that he is in favor of “deterrence” against China, ongoing “counterterrorism missions” in Afghanistan and “isolating dictatorship” in Latin America. Any one of these plans — depending on interpretation — could include a tremendous price tag. What would it mean to isolate “dictatorship” in Latin America? Expand U.S. bases in countries near Venezuela? Deploy more U.S. troops near the border? Engage in undercover operations to advance a political leader more favorable to the United States? What is the price tag of such operations? Surely Chuck Todd and Jake Tapper want to know.
One might respond that high spending on the military is in line with the status quo, while high spending on medical care marks an increase — so politicians have more responsibility to explain how they intend to pay for the latter. Yet, “normalcy” is no excuse: The reality is that every year, Democrats and Republicans alike make the decision to approve an astronomical military budget. By treating pre-existing funding priorities as a given, and raising concerns about any shift in funding priorities, moderators are reinforcing the status quo for no reason other than it is the status quo, thereby marginalizing challenges to that status quo.
What’s more, the amount spent on war is not staying the same — it’s increasing. Adjusting for inflation, U.S. military spending is at its highest levels ever, save for the height of the Iraq War. And the increase in military spending in real dollars from 2017 to 2018 — the biggest since just after 9⁄11 — was $61 billion. This increase, implemented with virtually no public debate, and no handwringing from any of the above media outlets or pundits, cost “taxpayers” $14 billion more per year than Sanders’ plan to make college tuition free for every student in the United States. The latter, of course, has been subject to numerous “How will you pay for it?” questions from moderators. The Pentagon increase — despite being a new financial burden — has resulted in zero such budgetary concerns.
The answer is not, of course, to simply replace moral condemnations of war with calls for fiscal responsibility. Even if drone wars are less costly than traditional ground invasions, they are still cruel and unjust and should be condemned. Rather, moderators’ inconsistencies should prompt us to interrogate — and reject — the moral judgments implicit in their deficit scolding.
When moderators tell their millions of viewers over and over that they should be concerned about the costs of Medicare for All, but not the cost of maintaining a sprawling network of 800 of military bases, they are saying we can afford policies that spread militarism — but not those that protect human life. They are doing the work of austerity ideologues and their billionaire backers—not the ordinary “taxpayers” they claim to represent.
Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Intercept, The Nation, and Tom Dispatch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.