Who is Pete Buttigieg running for?
Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is apparently enjoying a small post-debate bump. The South Bend, Indiana mayor has passed Kamala Harris in poll averages, and jumped to third place in one Iowa poll. It still seems highly unlikely that he will win the nomination, but it seems we have not seen the end of Mayor Pete, despite the preposterous notion of a small-town city executive pole-vaulting to become the world's most powerful person.
As yet, Buttigieg has avoided the level of scrutiny that comes with top-tier status — until now. Reporters and analysts are taking a harder look at the youthful mayor, and revealing the extent to which Buttigieg's campaign is an exercise in vain ambition and naked cynicism.
Take health care, since that was what Buttigieg hammered Elizabeth Warren on during the recent debate. "No plan has been laid out to explain how a multi-trillion-dollar hole in this Medicare-for-all plan that Senator Warren is putting forward is supposed to get filled in," he said. As I wrote then, while Warren is being evasive in strict terms, her formulation is arguably accurate given the overwhelming popular presumption that any tax increase means less take-home pay, when in fact Medicare-for-all done right would increase take-home income for almost all Americans.
Now, Warren is reportedly working on a variety of financing options for her plan. But Buttigieg's attack is duplicitous in three ways. First, he has not outlined how he will pay for his own plan, a sloppy and politically idiotic mess that would nonetheless require a great deal of tax revenue to expand Medicare and subsides on the ObamaCare exchanges if you actually tried to do it. Which taxes are going up, Pete? Huh?? Answer the question, sir!
Second, Buttigieg's criticism elides the fact that his plan would cost more than Sen. Bernie Sanders' Medicare-for-all bill. It would probably require less in tax money (though not necessarily, depending on details), but it would definitely mean greater overall spending when we include private spending on employer-side contributions, premiums, deductibles, co-pays, co-insurance, and out-of-pocket costs. He would not zero out these costs, and they are gigantic. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that a family making $100,000 spends fully 13 percent of their income on health care — in addition to their employer-side contribution:
Just consider one stipulation of the Buttigieg plan (one of many complicated band-aid regulations) which would prohibit "health care providers, including hospitals, from charging more than twice what Medicare would pay for the same service for out-of-network care." Now that would certainly improve the wretched health care status quo. But you know what is less than twice what Medicare pays? Exactly what Medicare pays!
Indeed, as economists Gabriel Zucman and Emmanuel Saez argue, we should really consider private insurance premiums as a tax. (Since Republicans repealed the ObamaCare mandate, these are not technically legally required, but almost everyone pays them anyway, so there's little difference.) And as Matt Bruenig calculates, if you include premiums, American workers are more highly-taxed than all peer nations except the Netherlands.
Finally, Buttigieg fails to mention that less than a year ago, he was talking up Medicare-for-all as a "compromise option," and using the exact same artful dodge on the tax question as he is now criticizing Warren for doing:
Forgot this. Buttigieg in debate two on raising middle class taxes for expanding coverage and eliminating premiums: “Look, this is a distinction without a difference, whether you're paying the same money in the form of taxes or premiums.“ pic.twitter.com/4xFz2vko8D
— Steadman™ (@AsteadWesley) October 18, 2019
So what happened to the bright-eyed young mayor — a guy who seemed like the face of an upcoming generation of progressive leaders? I have a theory: Buttigieg started taking tons and tons of money from the ultra-rich. He's been doing mega-fundraisers with the top 1 percent, gladhanding billionaires from coast to coast — especially in Silicon Valley and from Big Medical. Indeed, his campaign recently shamefacedly announced that one Steve Patton was dropping out of co-hosting a big-dollar fundraiser on account of being the Chicago city attorney who helped then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel cover up the shooting of Laquan McDonald. Whoops.
Buttigieg's policy director is a former Goldman Sachs vice president. And now Bloomberg reports that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is making staff recommendations for his campaign, and on at least two occasions Buttigieg has accepted his advice. Hey Howard Schultz, if you thought you missed the boat on purchasing a term as secretary of labor when Hillary Clinton lost, now's your chance to get back in the game!
It's not difficult to see why American plutocrats might find a young, ideologically malleable guy who evinces a great desire to become rich and powerful and keep that revolving door a'spinning to their taste. But it's hard to see why any Democratic voters would.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.