What Bill Clinton Understood About Big Government That Biden Doesn’t
It does not address the structural problems of higher education and its financing, and may make it worse. It is also socially disruptive, threatening to exacerbate the growing divide between Americans with college degrees and those without.
On top of that, it may not even be able to pay the political dividends that a Joe Biden administration is seeking. A sizable number of Democrats have already rejected Biden’s giveaway in the heat of this fall’s race. Sometimes harsh: Tim Ryan, running for Senate from Ohio, said, “Forgiving debt to those already on track to financial safety sends the wrong message to millions of Ohioans without degrees that they Equally trying to make ends meet.”
Ryan and others are secretly betting that Biden’s actions will cost Democrats votes, at least where they live. The judgment reflects the hard lessons many Democrats have learned over the past few decades.
During the New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt aide Harry Hopkins reportedly proposed the party’s basic political strategy: “We’ll spend and spend, tax and tax, election and election.” Biden’s student loan strategy omits Step two, but otherwise the political rationale is the same: Help millions of people, and they should be grateful — and vote for their gratitude.
It seems to work for decades. But the New Deal majority began to crack in the 1960s and completely disintegrated in the late 1980s. Many, many books try to explain why. A common theme: Democrats and big government no longer identify with middle-class values and interests. They are out of touch with public sentiment about jobs and benefits, racial politics and criminal policies, religion and patriotism.
That’s why Bill Clinton is careful to spread a different message as he tries to retake the presidency after three straight Democratic losses. He has shown support for the death penalty for violent criminals. He promised to end welfare as we know it. He also blamed a minor celebrity for speaking out loud about murders committed by black people. At the same time, he is sticking to the party’s core promise of using federal power to help those who, in his words, “work hard and play by the rules.”
At the low point of his presidency, he told a columnist the lessons he learned. He said he was in trouble because he forgot: “Values are the most important thing.”
Clinton’s transformation was so successful that in the decades following his presidency, both parties became friendlier to federal activism. But Democrats may have grown so tolerant of big government that they misunderstood why this happened.
The worst political loophole for a Biden write-off is not that it would increase the deficit, although it would. This is where it contradicts widely held values. It doesn’t help the less fortunate or reward their work — as the government’s income credit and Social Security programs do — it undermines part of free trade.
A lawyer can still earn a decent living from his degree, but he is no longer required to fulfill the obligations he accepts in exchange for the cost of earning the degree. As Clinton put it, millions of people who worked hard and played by the rules were turned into fools: those who paid debts or made sacrifices to avoid them.
Americans who never went to college but have other debts (from mortgages to auto loans) won’t get any relief from Biden’s decree. But they may have to pay for it through higher inflation or higher taxes, even though many beneficiaries are in better shape than they are. This will feel unfair to many voters, even those who support expanding government programs, because it does.
Contemporary Democrats have paid the price for their perception that Americans with college degrees are better than others. Giving hundreds of billions of dollars to college-going Americans — invoking something also known as the “Heroes Act” — would reinforce that perception.
Conservatives often deceive themselves that such big government is unpopular and that there are plenty of opportunities to learn otherwise. But it’s only popular if it aligns with voters’ values. Democrats are likely to be a clear reminder of this.
More information on student loan policies from Bloomberg:
• Student loan forgiveness is a costly mistake: edit
• Biden’s student loan plan ignores older borrowers: Alexis Leondis
• Biden’s debt relief plan will make US politics worse: Clive Crook
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is an editor of National Review and a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.
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