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Opinion What Hillary Clinton gets right by being boring

Hillar Clinton speaks to supporters in Broolyn on April 9. (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)
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One word would describe Hillary Clinton’s Saturday sit-down with the New York Daily News editorial board: Boring! And that’s a good thing.

The 80-minute wonkfest with the two-term  former senator from the Empire State was notably different from the editorial board meeting with Sen. Bernie Sanders a week earlier. That gathering was gasp-worthy for the Vermont Independent’s seeming inability to talk beyond his stump speech. Clinton had the opposite issue. She could talk — and talk and talk — about anything in thoughtful paragraphs stuffed with details.

[9 things Bernie Sanders should’ve known but didn’t in that Daily News interview]

One of the pillars of Sanders’s successful challenge to Clinton is his call for free tuition at public colleges and universities. During his interview, he mentioned it only twice. The most prominent mention came when he talked about how his called-for political revolution would lead to change on Capitol Hill.

Sanders: For example, as you know, I’ve talked about the need to make public colleges and universities tuition-free. Do I believe we can deliver on that? Absolutely, because I believe that millions of young people and their parents understand that that’s what we should be doing right now. And I think if Republicans or some Democrats want to vote against it, they will pay a very heavy political price.

My former colleagues should have pushed Sanders on the mechanics of providing such a benefit. Maybe they didn’t because they were acquainted with his six-point plan to make college tuition free and opted to spend the time on K-12 education funding instead. Perhaps this might explain why they posed the details question to Clinton. Her plan is largely seen as a reaction to Sanders’s popular stance and it isn’t free. But as you will see by her lengthy answer, Clinton isn’t ceding any ground to Sanders on college affordability.

Daily News: Get excited about your college plan now.
Clinton: Yeah, I’m very excited about my college plan.
Daily News: Make me understand it…..
Clinton: …The best way to do that is to ask, “Okay, what’s the problem?” Here’s the problem. States have been disinvesting in higher education now for 20 years but at an accelerating pace for 10 years. So that the flagship higher education systems in California, in New York, in Michigan, other places have been under increasing pressure because states have diverted money to other purposes. Building prisons has taken a lot of state dollars, and I think we should end building any more prisons. I think we need to be focused on moving people out of prison and diverting them in the first place. But we have to figure out how we get states, once again, to invest, because tuition has gone up 42% in the last 10 years. Nothing else has gone up that fast.
So you’re putting families and young people in an increasingly untenable position. So I have what I call the New College Compact. And it takes federal dollars to use basically as the incentive for states to join with the federal government in providing debt-free tuition for middle-class, working and poor families. I will not make it free the way my opponent, Sen. Sanders, has offered, for two big reasons.
First, I want not only to incentivize states to reinvest in higher education. I want to incentivize colleges and universities to take a hard look at their costs, because I do think that there needs to be a rigorous analysis. You know, one of the complaints that I think students rightly make is every student pays for athletic facilities. It may be required to buy tickets that they will never use. We need to take a hard look at what’s going into the base for the tuition that the average student has to pay. So if you say it’s free, I mean that’s like, take the pressure off, okay?
Daily News: Describe the flow of the money now from Washington to New York, for instance.
Clinton: Okay, let me finish. I get excited. Okay, so you’ve got the states, you’ve got the institutions and you’ve got the families, and then students who want to take advantage of debt-free tuition have to agree to work 10 hours a week. It’s work-study at the college or university, because a couple of public institutions — Arizona State University being a prime example — have lowered their costs by using students for a lot of the work. Yes, it’s free. It’s in effect in exchange for lower tuition. So I want that to be part of the deal.
So the federal government would hold out this promise. And I think states with Democratic governors like New York or California would accept it.
Daily News: But the promise is what? That federal government would give what?
Clinton: Would ensure that as students are accepted into public colleges and universities, they would submit an application that included their family income and resources, and below a certain level, they would be told, “Okay, you can afford this much, x amount, to pay for your tuition, but you can’t afford any more than that. We will make up the difference.” And some people will be told, “You can’t afford any of it, so we will pay. So you do not have to borrow any money whatsoever to go to school.”
But it would be better, it would work better, if the states were also reinvesting. And so part of the compact is to encourage the states to do that by saying, “We got a great deal for your students, but we’re going to request that you put more money in. And by the way, colleges and universities, I don’t see how you’re going to tell your students they can’t be eligible but we want you to engage in the hard analysis of what you are charging your students.”
Daily News: Okay, well, right now, you go through the financial aid process and…
Clinton: Right, and it’s too long, and too messy, and yeah.
Daily News: And students and families fill out a form, and then they’re told what they can afford.
Clinton: Yeah, but here’s the difference, Arthur. They are told, “You are eligible for this kind of aid.” The aid comes with usually an interest rate that is often above market level, number one. The aid is very often not in any way going to help them if they can afford through the aid to have tuition, but they get no help on the expense side. So I am also offering help on the expense side for young people who need it.
So we’ve got this perfect storm. They go through this long, burdensome process, and they often end up being told, “Well, you can borrow x amount at this rate.” They borrow x amount at this rate, but there’s no guarantee that the rate stays the same. We are eliminating that.
Daily News: But after you’ve decided for an individual student, this is what this student or the student’s family should be able to afford, will the government be making a grant on top of that? It’s not a loan.
Clinton: It’s not a loan.
Daily News: So if somebody says, “You can afford $,1000 and tuition is $4,000…”
Clinton: We pay three.
Daily News: You pay three.
Hillary Clinton speaks at campaign event in Baltimore on April 10, (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Hillary Clinton speaks at campaign event in Baltimore on April 10, (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

Clinton: We pay three. Now what I want to do is look at all of the available financial assistance that’s out there, because we can combine with state grant programs or institutional grant programs.
But here’s what I also feel really strongly about is as you’re looking at this…you know, when I taught at the University of Arkansas Law School, tuition was very low, but there were a lot of poor kids. And a lot of poor kids could scrape the money together for tuition, but their whole education was dependent upon keeping all the other costs affordable.
So they lived out in the country, and they had an old clunker car. And the car broke down. There was no mass transit. People were stuck. And for the lack of $300, they were out of luck, because they couldn’t get to classes, or if they were a single parent, the scholarship, I mean the child-care money was no longer affordable, or whatever their problem might be. So I started something called the Arkansas Single Parent Scholarship Fund to fund those expenses that were not tuition, but were room, board, books, but also these unexpected…and so I want to move Pell Grants so that they can be used for non-tuition expenses. So this whole package will lead to debt-free tuition.
But here’s the final point I want to make, why I feel absolutely committed to this. If you look at the data, and I know you do look at data, if you’re a young person in the bottom quartile of income right now, in America, you have a lesser chance of starting and completing college than someone in the same position did 30 years ago. Even if you’re a top student, if your grades are good, if your test scores are good. And we are just shrinking the pipeline. If we’re supposed to be a meritocracy, then let’s get back to helping people who deserve it. And I am not going to pay for my granddaughter. I’m not going to pay for Donald Trump’s children or grandchildren. I’m going to focus on middle-class, working and poor families. And that’s where I think we need to be lifting those young people up.
Now the other thing I want to quickly say because I also feel strongly about this. We do need to try to get the cost of community college as close to free as possible. And the President made a proposal about that. I think he’s on the right track on that, because a lot of young people, especially starting in high school, go to community college programs and actually acquire college credits as well as credentials. Maybe it’s a credential as a machinist or maybe it’s college credits so you can start as a junior and save the money that you would have otherwise spent in your freshman or sophomore years.
So I am determined that we’re going to do more with community college, more with technical institutions, because we have to once again send a very strong message that going to college is not the only way to get a good middle-class life. We have about 1.2 million jobs in this country that are going unfilled for machinists and welders and tool and dye makers and computer coders and a lot of things that don’t require a four-year college degree but do require skills. So we have to look at the total picture about how we make college affordable, how we make community college readily available starting in high school, how we produce more credentialed workers and then get them out into the workforce.

The blow up over Sanders’s handling of his plan to break up the banks proved to be more heat than light as folks who know the ins and outs of Dodd-Frank better articulated what the senator meant than he did. So, asking Clinton about too big to fail was akin to handing her the ball and telling her to run with it.

Daily News: Wall Street, too big to fail.
Clinton: Too big to fail.
Daily News: How do you stop too big to fail? What needs to happen?
Clinton: Well, I have been a strong supporter of Dodd-Frank because it is the most consequential financial reforms since the Great Depression. And I have said many times in debates and in other settings, there is authority in Dodd-Frank to break up banks that pose a grave threat to financial stability.
There are two approaches. There’s Section 121, Section 165, and both of them can be used by regulators to either require a bank to sell off businesses, lines of businesses or assets, because of the finding that is made by two-thirds of the financial regulators that the institution poses a grave threat, or if the Fed and the FDIC conclude that the institutions’ living will resolution is inadequate and is not going to get any better, there can also be requirements that they do so.
So we’ve got that structure. Now a lot of people have argued that there need to be some tweaks to it that I would be certainly open to. But my point from the very beginning of this campaign, and it’s something that I’ve said repeatedly: big banks did not cause the Great Recession primarily. They were complicit, but hedge funds; Lehman Brothers, an investment bank; a big insurance company, AIG; mortgage companies like Countrywide, Fannie and Freddie — there were lots of culprits who were contributing to the circumstances that led to the very dangerous financial crisis.
Daily News: Should some of those culprits have been prosecuted, and in prison, successfully? Does that rankle you?
Hillary Clinton listens to community leader during visit to diner in the New York City borough of Queens on April 11. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Hillary Clinton listens to community leader during visit to diner in the New York City borough of Queens on April 11. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Clinton: Well, it rankles me that I don’t believe we had sufficient laws, sufficient prosecutorial resources to really go after what could have been not just dangerous, unethical behavior but perhaps illegal behavior. I’ve talked with some of the people responsible for trying to determine whether there could be cases brought. And they were totally outresourced.
We haven’t adequately resourced the regulators — SEC, Commodity Futures Trading Commission, FDIC — and we have not sufficiently resourced the Justice Department and U.S. attorneys to have the expertise and the ability to go after anything they sought.
Daily News: There’s two slightly different questions. One is, was it a problem of law or was it a problem of prosecutors not being sufficiently resourced?
Clinton: The prosecutors tell me it was the problem of the law. Other analysts, as you well know, have said that there could have been more vigorous efforts that might have led to prosecutions. Now there were cases brought in some of the mortgage companies. There’s also a problem with the statute of limitations, because these are difficult cases to bring. They take a long time. I think we should certainly extend the statute of limitations.
So I’m not going to second-judge people who I believe were acting in good faith, because I think they were — U.S. attorneys, Department of Justice prosecutors. But they concluded that they could not make cases. So I think we have to have a very robust analysis of what were the real reasons they couldn’t make cases. Are the laws insufficient? Therefore how do we try to make them tougher as a deterrent and make it clear to people in the financial services industry that there’s a new sheriff in town so that there will be additional legal requirements and we will resource better.
So I think we have to take a hard look at this, and I believe we can do that.
Daily News: If I hear you correctly, Dodd-Frank has got mechanisms for looking at institutions that are grave perils to the United States’ economy. Do you believe now that any of the banks are inherently a grave threat to the United States’ economy?
Clinton: At this point, I am not privy to the analysis that is being conducted under Dodd-Frank to make that determination. I am however quite concerned about the recent district court judgment overturning the regulators’ assessment that MetLife should be considered an institution under the too big to fail rubric, because I don’t think that the Financial Stability Oversight Council acted precipitously when they so labeled MetLife. And they clearly did their homework and came to that conclusion. And for a district judge to in a sense substitute her judgment for FSOC concerns me.
So right now, I don’t know what the analysis of the existing potential for a grave threat or the suitability and completeness of their living wills might be. But I want to stress I will be looking for regulators who I have confidence in will be able to make those hard calls. We can’t ever let what happened happen again.
But we’ve got to go further. We’ve got to have more transparency with hedge funds. We don’t even know what kind of risk they pose. We need to look at repurchase agreements, which need more collateral so that they can’t be used for the leverage that they were used before. That was a big problem with Lehman Brothers. We have to look at money market funds. One of the problems with one of the big money market funds back then was that it had too much Lehman Brothers debt in its portfolio and the government had to step in to boost it back up.
So my point has been continuously: The banks always have to be under now a tight regulatory oversight. But if all you do is look at the banks, you are missing shadow banking, and I have put forth a plan that everybody from Paul Krugman to professors of finance have said is a top-to-bottom, comprehensive look at not just what happened in the past but how we prevent risks in the future.

What’s interesting here is how Clinton goes beyond breaking up the banks. She usefully points out that too-big-to-fail banks weren’t the only problem. Insurance companies, investment banks, hedge funds were “complicit” in the financial meltdown of 2008. As she said, “If all you do is look at the banks, you are missing shadow banking.”

[Clinton on ‘superpredator’ remarks: ‘I shouldn’t have used those words’]

Follow Jonathan Capehart's opinionsFollow

Clinton talked about the broader economy, the U.S. relationship with Israel, mass incarceration and other issues during her Saturday visit at the Daily News. But I highlight her responses on the banks and college affordability to show that even on Sanders’s turf, Clinton has ideas, plans, something to say. When Sanders was asked about foreign policy, Clinton’s domain as a former secretary of state, he more than disappointed. “I don’t know the answer to that,” Sanders said when asked whether President Obama had “the right policy” in dealing with the Islamic State.

Daily News columnist Linda Stasi wrote over the weekend that Clinton was “as totally well informed as you expect her to be.” That’s not nearly as exciting as listening to a presidential candidate walk through policy like one walks on thin ice. But at this stage in the nomination contest, I’ll take “totally well informed” and the boredom that goes with it than the worrisome alternative. 

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj

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