Today at the White House, Obama unveiled a proposal to extend low interest rates on student loans for another year, preventing them from doubling on July 1st. House Republicans have objected to Obama’s proposal, noting that they have passed their own plan to extend low student loan rates. They claim their proposal is only slightly different from Obama’s, which is highly debatable, but there is a legitimate policy debate to be had over the two proposals.

Except that Republicans have decided to inject — what else? — the “presidential scandals” into the argument.

On MSNBC this morning, GOP Rep. Luke Messer — the President of the Republican Freshman Class — accused Obama of hyping the difference between the two plans as a way to distract from the “scandals.”

“There is a lot more in agreement between our plan and the president’s plan than some of the rhetoric you hear out of Democrats,” Messer said. “A lot of this is a distraction.” Messer added that Obama’s insistence on differences between the two sides was intended as “a distraction from issues like Benghazi and the IRS and the Department of Justice.”

Messer also claimed that the argument was intended as a distraction from what Obama policies had done to the economy and young people’s prospects.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for John Boehner has been making a more careful version of Messer’s argument, insisting that the White House is pointing to differences between their proposals as a way to “change the subject from its growing list of scandals.”

The Republican plan would tie student loan interest rates to the 10-year Treasury rate, and Republicans immediately responded to Obama’s event today by pointing out that the differences between the two plans are “slight.” In some ways, Obama’s plan is similar, but as Sahil Kapur explains, there are clear differences:

Compared to the House GOP plan, Obama’s plan would lead to rates 1.57 percent lower for subsidized Stafford loans, and about 0.57 percent lower for PLUS loans. And unlike the GOP plan, the White House plan also limits repayments to 10 percent of a borrower’s discretionary income and fixes the rate for the life of the loan. The GOP plan includes a cap on Stafford loan rates at 8.5 percent; the White House plan has no cap.

At his event today, Obama said that the GOP plan “fails to lock in low rates for students next year. That is not smart. It eliminates safeguards for lower income families. That is not fair.”

There is clearly a legit policy difference here. So why inject the scandals into the discussion? It’s hard to see who the intended audience is for this. Yesterday’s Quinnipiac poll found that an overwhelming majority of Americans — 73-22 — thinks we should be placing a higher priority on the economy than on the “scandals” gripping Washington. It seems pretty backwards to claim that in talking about differences over an economic issue such as student loan rates, Obama is trying to distract from the scandals. Message: In talking about something the public cares about, Obama is trying to distract from stories that huge majorities see as a far less important priority!

Are Republicans going to inject the “scandals” into the discussion every time Obama highlights differences with Republicans over an issue important to the middle class? Guess we’ll soon find out.

 

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.