Clinton slams Sanders on taxes, but it could backfire

We knew this day would come.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has attacked her rival for the Democratic Party nomination for president, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., over his single-payer health care plan. According to Clinton’s campaign, it would require a tax increase on the middle class.

“If you are truly concerned about raising incomes for middle-class families, the last thing you should do is cut their take-home pay right off the bat by raising their taxes,” Clinton’s campaign said in a statement. “Yet Bernie Sanders has called for a roughly 9 percent tax hike on middle-class families just to cover his health care plan, and simple math dictates he’ll need to tax workers even more to pay for the rest of his at least $18-20 trillion agenda.”

That agenda includes creating jobs with a $1 trillion program of infrastructure improvements, making public universities and colleges tuition-free and expanding Social Security and Medicare.

“By contrast, Hillary Clinton believes strongly that middle-class families deserve a raise, not a tax increase,” the Clinton campaign continued. “She has proposed a bold, aggressive agenda, but when it comes to paying for it, she will make sure the wealthiest Americans finally start paying their fair share, not force the middle class to pay even more than they already do.”

Naturally, the Sanders campaign had a reply, which was this: Hillary Clinton is now squarely in the pocket of big donors on Wall Street.

“In an attempt to divert the public’s gaze from Wall Street coziness, the Clinton campaign has launched a false attack on universal health care — something she previously supported,” the Sanders campaign replied. “So what is this false attack really all about: either Secretary Hillary Clinton is repudiating years of advocating for universal health care or she’s playing politics with the health of America’s families.”

As far as attacks go, however, Clinton’s slam on Sanders isn’t false. Sanders did introduce a bill in 2013 that would provide universal health care, and that bill did contain a 2.2 percent increase in income taxes for families that earn $250,000 or less in taxable income annually and individuals who earn less than $200,000 in taxable income annually.

Then again, assuming Sanders got elected and got his universal health care program through Congress, everybody would have health care. Not greater access to health insurance, but actual health care. There’s a big difference.

Those middle-class families would no longer have to pay health insurance premiums. They’d face no annual deductibles, or co-pays, or co-insurance, coverage limits or any of the myriad other things insurance companies have devised to extract money from consumers while limiting their own liabilities. That’s certainly worth something.

Not only that, but Sanders’ campaign says a Medicare-for-all type system would reduce health care costs overall by eliminating the expenses of the private-sector health insurance industry. (Support for that contention comes from former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and University of Massachusetts-Amherst professor Gerald Friedman, among others.)

That’s probably why Clinton herself embraced universal health care during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Clinton’s attack is dubious for several reasons. First, it’s unnecessary. Sanders may be very competitive in New Hampshire, but Clinton is expected to win in places such as Iowa, Nevada, South Carolina and Florida. Second, it alienates Sanders supporters. Clinton will need them to support her if Sanders doesn’t win the Democratic nomination. It reinforces the distrust that many progressives have about Clinton’s candidacy. And third, eschewing taxes on the middle class may ultimately preclude Clinton from advancing a universal health care plan of her own, should she win the presidency.

The bottom line is Clinton didn’t need to attack Sanders, least of all on the issue of universal health care, which is one of the more popular (and, yes, expensive) parts of his agenda. She may yet come to regret that she did.

Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist and co-host of “PoliticsNOW,” airing at 5:30 p.m. Sundays on 8NewsNow. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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