It was a simple request, heard only by the 100 or so voters seated on folding chairs outside at a quiet campaign stop on a strawberry farm in Muscatine, Iowa.
"You've got a proposal? Tell us how you'll pay for it."
At the small venue on Tuesday afternoon, a week out from the first Democratic debate, this was Hillary Clinton's challenge to the crowd, cast as a sharp contrast between her campaign and those of the other candidates. While she and her aides prepare for the debate on Tuesday in Las Vegas — seeking, in particular, the best way to approach Bernie Sanders, her strongest challenger — Clinton has raised one question more prominently on the campaign trail: How realistic are a candidate's government proposals — and how will he or she pay for them?
"I want to be a smart investor in what will make us richer, but I also want to pay for what we do," Clinton said in Muscatine, replying to a voter's question about the national debt. "Everything that I am proposing I have a way to pay for it. It's raising taxes on the wealthy, it's closing loopholes, it's doing what I believe we should do, so that when I tell you here's my plan, I will tell you how I want to pay for it."
Clinton and Sanders, the U.S. senator from Vermont, have each put forward sweeping proposals on the pressing issues of this year's Democratic primary — plans to tackle student debt and income inequality, gun control and health care. The agendas of both candidates would require hundreds of billions of dollars in new government spending.
But on the whole, Sanders' proposals are significantly larger — and come with higher price tags. He wants to institute a single-payer health care system and spend $1 trillion on infrastructure. On college affordability, Sanders says he would use $47 billion a year federally to "end" tuition at public schools. Clinton does not go as far in her proposal, the New College Compact, which calls for $350 billion in new spending over the course of 10 years to ensure that students graduate debt-free.
Clinton, who has long characterized her style in government as pragmatic, speaks regularly on the campaign trail about her merits as a political negotiator and her history working across the aisle. But this week, on the road in Iowa, Clinton was more sharply focused on the question of realistic spending proposals.
At a town hall in Davenport, after outlining her New College Compact plan in response to a voter's question about student debt, Clinton added, "There are other ideas floating around. I call [my plan] a compact because everybody has to do something," she said. "I don't think there's anything free in life. Somebody will pay."
In Muscatine, responding to the question about the national debt, Clinton spoke about Republicans, the "original believers in the great credit card in the sky," she said, promising to be "a smart investor" with clear, responsible ideas about funding.
"I'm going to tell you what I will do, and I will tell you how I will pay for it. And you should ask that from everybody," said Clinton. "You've got a proposal, tell us how you'll pay for it.”
Clinton has said she would pay for her college plan with a cap on itemized tax deductions, such as charitable contributions, for wealthy families. (President Obama has proposed the same limits without success.) Clinton aides have also said they would propose ways to replace revenue from the Cadillac tax, a cost-controlling provision of the Affordable Care Act that she has said she would work to repeal as president.
Clinton has been less specific, for instance, about how to pay for her $10 billion plan to combat drug addiction. But she has also proposed a significant hike in the capital gains tax.
Last month, Bill Clinton suggested that his wife would be looking to the debate to contrast the details of her plans with those put forward by Sanders. Both she and the senator, the former president said, have “talked about what they would cost and, you know, you can actually have a debate there where you could discuss the relative merits of their positions,” he said in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.
But if Clinton shows skepticism in the debate of Sanders’s plans to dramatically increase the size of government — funded largely by a set of new taxes targeting top-earners and corporations — they are questions Sanders will be ready for.
He has heard them on the campaign trail since day one. Sanders often ticks off the basic details of his revenue and spending plans, often framed in the context of a “rigged economy,” for voters and supporters who confront the candidate with questions along the lines of: But how are you going to pay for it?
For instance, late last month, at a community center in Des Moines, a college-aged woman named Maria posed one such question.
“We hear you saying it will be free for a college student to attend a university. Well, I support that, I think everyone in here supports that,” she said. “Can you tell us how it’s going to be free? Because nothing is really free. Somehow the money has to be paid, and that’s my main concern.”
“OK, terrific,” Sanders exclaimed. “Maria says, ‘How are you going pay for it?’”
“I start out with the premise that we have a serious problem in this country in terms of income and wealth inequality,” he went on. “That’s a starting point for me. … In terms of distribution of wealth, the top 1/10th of one percent holds almost as much wealth as the bottom 90%. Got that?”
Eventually, Sanders got to Maria’s direct question. “A tax on Wall Street speculation” — a detailed revenue package Sanders has already filed in the Senate, like many of his policy proposals — would pay for the free college, he said. Sanders campaign says the tax will raise $300 billion per year for the government, revenue he insists will come from the rich while sparing the middle class new taxes.
The skepticism frustrates those who have worked with Sanders for years, filing detailed bills to create and pay for new government programs. But in the debate, Sanders aides expect questions, whether from Clinton or the moderators, about whether his plans are tenable.
“The idea of a free lunch is absurd," said Warren Gunnels, the senator’s longtime policy aide. “Sen. Sanders has provided very clear proposals to date about how he would pay for the initiatives that he has brought forward."
“In the Senate and in the House, he considers himself the true deficit hawk," Gunnels said.
In the Senate, Sanders’s measures largely go nowhere. But he and his advisers defend the bills and his campaign proposals as detailed plans about how to raise and spend government dollars. Sanders’ Senate office files legislation just about every time he makes a proposal on the trail. (So far they’ve outlined funding for the tuition-free college proposal, the $1.2 trillion for infrastructure, an expansion to Social Security, a youth jobs program, the Medicare-for-all system, among other keys to his economic model.) In other words, if asked about how to pay for things, he will have answers.
On Thursday, in an interview on MSNBC ahead of the debate, Sanders acknowledged he would “spend a lot of money” as president. “But we're going to create a lot of jobs,” he said, “and we are going to pay for everything that we are proposing.”
Ruby Cramer is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
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Evan McMorris-Santoro is the White House correspondent for BuzzFeed News.
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