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Democrats Dodge Some Tough Questions On Fiscal Policy

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 15/11/2015 Jonathan Cohn

The Democratic presidential candidates got some tough questions during Saturday night's debate about how they’d pay for their domestic policy proposals. They didn’t really answer them.

All three candidates -- Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders -- have endorsed ambitious agendas. They would make paid family leave available to all workers, while providing new financial assistance to help people pay for child care, college and medical bills. Sanders has also proposed creating a single-payer health insurance system, which would basically make Medicare available to everybody.

When asked about how they would finance these plans, all three candidates implied they could do so without broad tax increases, except on the very wealthy.

“It isn't the middle class,” Clinton said. “I have made very clear that hardworking, middle-class families need a raise, not a tax increase.”

Sanders and O’Malley were less definitive, though both talked about raising income taxes on the very wealthy.

But it’s hard to see how enacting these agendas fully would be possible with at least some higher taxes on non-wealthy Americans. The paid leave plans many Democrats endorse, for example, all envision a new payroll tax. (California’s law, which is a model for such proposals, works that way.)

To be clear, the middle-class tax increases necessary to finance these schemes would mostly be modest. The family leave plans, for example, call for a payroll tax of just 0.2 percent. Yes, that’s zero-point-two percent. The exception would be Sanders’ vision for single-payer health insurance -- that is, making Medicare available to all. But, as Sanders has noted, those taxes would be in lieu of private insurance premiums. Middle-class consumers might actually come out ahead.

And there’s a big difference between Democrats being less-than-candid about the finances of their domestic agendas, which would run in the hundreds of billions of dollars, and Republicans totally dodging questions about how they'd pay for their tax plans, which come with price tags in the trillions.

But tax levels are already insufficient to finance current government operations, let alone an agenda that calls for new programs. At some point, Democrats need to stop pretending that ambitious domestic initiatives wouldn’t cost more money and start arguing, simply, that those initiatives would be worth the price.

See the latest updates on the debate here.

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