There Have Been 21 Debate Questions About Paying For Social Programs, Zero About Paying For War

Democratic debate moderators are sending the message that we can afford policies that spread militarism—but not those that protect human life.

Sarah LazareMarch 2, 2020

Debate moderators CNN anchor Anderson Cooper and CNN anchor Erin Burnett look on before the Democratic Presidential Debate at Otterbein University on October 15, 2019 in Westerville, Ohio. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

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.

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.

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 21How 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 to2019 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 Posts 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 911, 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 2019for­eign 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 911 — 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.

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