Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., took the stage at the Late Show with Stephen Colbert to big applause Tuesday night, waving broadly to the cheering crowd -- before sitting down in the hot seat to face questions about health care, one of the most pressing issues of the 2020 race.
Colbert pressed the candidate famous for her array of plans that she says would make America more equitable, drilling down on how exactly a Warren administration would plan to pay specifically for Medicare for All -- and whether or not the middle-class would see a tax hike were she to make it to the White House.
"You keep being asked in the debates, how are you going to pay for it? Are you going to be raising the middle class taxes?" Colbert asked. "How are you going to pay for it? Are you going to be raising the middle-class taxes?"
"So, here's how we're going to do this,” Warren started. “Costs are going to go up for the wealthiest Americans, for big corporations … and hard-working middle-class families are going to see their costs going down."
"But will their taxes go up?" Colbert asked again.
"But here's the thing--" Warren started.
"But here's the thing," Colbert countered, "I've listened to these answers a few times before."
The “Medicare for All” plan was written by Warren’s progressive opponent, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, but Warren supports it. Warren has a history of answering broadly about the plan’s overall cost while artfully sidestepping the question of middle class tax hikes, on more than one occasion appearing to hedge.
At the ABC/Univision debate in Houston, ABC News’ Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos asked her about taxes directly, adding that her fellow 2020 contender Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-VT., has been candid about the fact that middle-class taxes would have to go up for the plan, which he wrote, to work.
“Will you make that same admission?” Stephanopoulos asked Warren at the podium.
Warren did not, instead emphasizing what American families would pay in total cost.
Pressed several times, she eventually said, “What we're talking about here is what's going to happen in families' pockets, what's going to happen in their budgets,” Warren said. “And the answer is on Medicare for All, costs are going to go up for wealthier individuals and costs are going to go up for giant corporations, but for hard-working families across this country, costs are going to go down.”
It’s nearly an identical answer to the one she gave at the second Democratic debate in Detroit, when CNN’s Jake Tapper asked if she was "with Bernie" on not just Medicare, but on his mode of paying for it.
“Costs will go up for billionaires and go up for corporations," Warren said. "For middle-class families, costs, total costs will go down.”
The responses have led reporters to challenge Warren on her stance, following up on a potential tax increase to pay for Medicare for All.
Asked for comment, the Warren campaign pointed to the current costs of the health care system and the bottom-line savings they argue Medicare for All would bring.
In an especially testy back-and-forth with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews following the Detroit debate, Matthews drilled down repeatedly.
"Your pay won't go up. You dodged that tonight. Jake Tapper kept saying how much are your taxes going to go up.”
"How much are your costs going to go down?" Warren said.
"No, no, no, different question. How much will your taxes go up?" Matthews said. “Why don’t you want to answer that question?”
“The question is how much are you going to have to dig in your pocket to pay?” Warren countered.
“I know that’s the answer you’d like to give, but will your taxes go up?”
“There is an answer to the question of your costs,” Warren said. “Because it’s costs that matter to people.”
During several interviews after the ABC/Univision debate, Warren was asked again. One reporter asked when Warren would come out with her own health care plan -- which she said she didn’t feel the need to do because a good plan was already out there -- and if it would raise taxes on the middle class.
Again, Warren said, “Middle-class families are going to pay less.”
But despite Warren’s refusal to answer the question of taxes when it comes to implementing a single-payer health care system, she has been clear on the dozens of plans she has put out.
None of the plans -- and she has developed a reputation for having many -- would raise taxes on the middle class, she said recently.
“Could you do what you want to do with all your plans and not have a tax on the middle class?” CNN’s Chris Cuomo asked Warren after the ABC/Univision debate.
“Sure!” Warren responded.
“Really?” Cuomo asked, skeptical.
“Yea!” Warren replied.
“...No tax on the middle class?” Cuomo pushed.
So far, Warren has focused her attention, and her answers, on out-of-pocket cost.
Those costs, Warren specified in the last debate, include “every time an insurance company says, ‘Sorry, you can't see that specialist,’” or “every time they don't get a prescription filled because they can't pay for it.”
And experts like Larry Levitt, executive vice president for health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, have said they support the view that Americans, and specifically middle-class Americans, pay a lot, including premiums, deductibles, copays, and taxes already in place -- costs which might be reduced on average by Medicare for All.
Levitt has also noted, however, that it would be difficult for a Medicare for All model to leave the middle-class tax bracket unchanged.
“One of the goals of Medicare for All is to make the financing of health care more progressive, with higher-income people paying more. However, a health care system that exempts the middle-class entirely from contributing might be challenging to sustain politically,” Levitt wrote on Twitter recently.
Warren is on record saying that none of her plans would raise the middle-class taxes; however, Medicare for All was developed by Sanders, who has made clear his plan would cause a tax increase, saying it would ultimately balance out.
Warren has continued to demonstrate she supports Sanders’ Medicare for All with unflagging gusto -- but she's also maintained her noncommittal status on what burden the average tax brackets would bear.