The Myths of Means-Testing Are Still Alive Among Democrats

At last night’s debate in Miami, several Democratic candidates continued to peddle misinformation about both free college and Medicare for All.

South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg and former vice president Joe Biden talk during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami, Florida. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

Last night’s forum in Miami, the second of two debates this week, was arguably even more chaotic than the first. As the ten candidates dashed through everything from healthcare and foreign policy to the environment and civil rights at dizzying speeds, many viewers probably found it more than a little difficult to parse the rhetoric.

Nonetheless, amid the foray of the debate’s overcrowded stage — which featured everything from Joe Biden waffling about his past associations with segregationists to Marianne Williamson soliloquizing about the moon — a few concrete ideological differences made themselves visible.

Among other things, on the key issues of free college and Medicare for All — both notably championed by Bernie Sanders since his 2016 presidential run and sure to be significant in 2020 — many Democrats continue to be deliberately imprecise. Worse still, despite a generalized rhetorical shift throughout the party, some candidates continue to trade in the same rank inaccuracies when it comes to universal programs that corporate centrists have peddled for decades.

In this regard, the night’s worst offender was arguably South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, who repeated the idea (previously deployed by Hillary Clinton) that free tuition at public colleges amounts to a subsidy for the children of billionaires (“I just don’t believe it makes sense to ask working class families to subsidize even the children of billionaires”). For one thing, a typical rich family is unlikely to make use of the public college system — they’re off to elite private schools. (And how many billionaire scions do you know with student loan debt?) But, for another, under a progressive taxation system — particularly one in which the rich pay a lot more than they do now — the cost of social programs isn’t equally shared, so working and middle class families would hardly be subsidizing the rich. On the contrary: the rich would be paying for everybody else.

Lingering behind Buttigieg’s misleading talking point about free college is a longstanding liberal proclivity for means-testing going back to at least the Clinton era. While some Democratic politicians are now rhetorically tilting left on many issues, dishonest language directed at universal programs should have everyone holding their applause.

Much the same can be said for elements of tonight’s conversation surrounding Medicare for All, a policy debate which has many candidates prevaricating about where they really stand and speaking with absurd reverence toward market-based private insurance. Chief among the inaccuracies spouted by centrist Democrats continues to be the idea that the creation of a universal public system would amount to an unprecedented forced elimination of people’s existing plans. John Hickenlooper, for example, at one point insisted: “You can’t expect to eliminate private insurance for 180 million people, many of whom don’t want to give it up.”

Putting aside the obvious merits of a universal system enjoyed by everyone regardless of wealth, this critique of Medicare for All doesn’t hold up to even the most basic scrutiny.

Tonight being no exception, on these and other issues, many Democrats continue to favor the vague language of equity and affordability over that of universalism and equality. The party’s primary voters should settle for nothing less than the latter — and condemn the former to the dustbin of the 1990s where it belongs.