Another Democratic debate, another argument about how anyone who questions the merits of various lefty ideas just doesn’t have “the guts” (to use Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ preferred term) to “dream big and fight hard” (quoth Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren).
The moderates, allegedly, are prioritizing political expediency over principle. They’re in thrall to polls and focus groups. They’re terrified of alienating independent voters perpetually camped out in Iowa diners.
If only those sell-out center-left politicians would show some leadership!
Allegations of political cowardice can seem rich coming from candidates unwilling to acknowledge the obvious truths that, say, solving the climate crisis will require some public sacrifice, including putting a price on carbon. Or that yes, Medicare for All would require higher taxes on the middle class.
Clearly all candidates, to varying degrees, consider the political landscape when deciding what policies to propose and how to make the case for them. Look at South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who sanctimoniously criticized Warren for failing to detail how her Medicare for All would be financed but has provided scant details on how to pay for his own health plan.
That said, it has been frustrating to watch more moderate positions be characterized as solely driven by political calculations.
Many of these center-left proposals are good policies that should be defended on the merits, and not because they may (or may not) be more politically expedient. Moderates should make the affirmative case for what the far left has been writing off as wishy-washy realpolitik.
For instance: It isn’t a compromise of values or principles to believe that people who can afford to pay something to go to college should pay something to go to college. A college education is a valuable thing, most of whose benefits still accrue to the person receiving the degree.
Yes, public colleges should be cheaper — and even free for those who would otherwise be unable to attend. While the degree recipient retains most of the value of higher education, there are indeed significant spillover benefits to having a more educated populace; and as a nation, we also want all individuals to have a shot at achieving their full potential, regardless of their financial circumstances at birth.
In other words, there is both an economic and a moral case for improving overall access to higher education, specifically among students on the margin of enrolling.
But there is neither an economic nor a moral argument for making college free for everyone — including rich kids who can afford tuition and who are likely to go to college no matter what because they know it’s worth the money.
So if there isn’t an economic or a moral argument for free college for the wealthy, you know what there is? An oft-cited political one: that maybe if rich people think they’re personally benefiting more from the welfare state, they’ll be less resistant to its expansion.
Now who’s opting for political expediency, rather than the best policy?
Likewise, it isn’t an abandonment of principles, or of the poor, to say you can guarantee affordable health coverage for all Americans without completely rearranging 18% of the economy into a single-payer plan.
Yes, everyone needs health care. But not everyone needs to get it through Uncle Sam or completely for free, as Sanders’ Medicare for All bill prescribes. Even the current Medicare program, while universal for Americans over age 65, charges premiums based on income.
Once again, it’s OK to ask people with means to pay for stuff of value, even stuff they need. People need food, and we still don’t make everything available in supermarkets free to all comers regardless of income.
Or let’s say you want to raise taxes on the rich, as both far-left and center-left Democratic contenders generally do.
It isn’t an act of political cowardice to point out that it might be constitutionally cleaner and administratively simpler to use tools other than an annual wealth tax. Such tools include taxing capital gains at regular income rates; eliminating the “stepped-up” basis; adding an inheritance tax; and imposing a “retrospective” capital tax.
If you’re not familiar with these ideas, you’re not alone: Whatever their policy merits, these are all wonky, technical changes to the tax code. They’re difficult to explain succinctly and clearly on the campaign trail.
In fact, one reason Warren and Sanders might be stressing an annual wealth tax, rather than these other ideas, might be precisely because a “wealth tax” — like “free college” or “Medicare for All” — is a simpler, more intuitive slogan.
More politically expedient, you might even say.
Catherine Rampell’s email address is email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @crampell. Distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.