For a generation after Bill Clinton rescued a flailing Democratic Party, its policies were defined by one of the former president’s most overused mantras — that government should reward those who “work hard and play by the rules.”
Clinton unveiled his formulation in the early 1990s, in the run-up to his first presidential campaign. Al From, whose Democratic Leadership Council helped design Clinton’s agenda, thinks the then-Arkansas governor probably came up with it himself.
In later years, coming from the mouths of robotic Democrats everywhere, the phrase came to sound trite. In Clinton’s moment, however, it was anything but.
One of Clinton’s core critiques of the party, which had lost three straight presidential elections, was that it had become known as the party of giveaways. Democrats wanted to throw government money at every problem, but they asked nothing of people in return, demanded no accountability.
Government’s job, Clinton believed, was to incentivize work and personal responsibility, rather than penalize it. From that belief sprang such policies as the vast expansion of the earned-income tax credit and welfare reform.
Clinton wasn’t against large-scale social spending. He just believed that the social contract ought to rest on programs such as Social Security, in which all Americans contributed their own hard-earned dollars and got help from the government in return.
I suppose you could argue that canceling a broad swath of college debt is in keeping with Clinton’s philosophy. The students who borrowed all that money were following the rules, just as previous generations did. But as the cost of college rose dramatically, so did the debt burden, even as salaries in many industries failed to keep up.
The Federal Reserve estimates that Americans owe a staggering $1.7 trillion in college debt.
Here’s the problem, though: A lot of other families made the difficult decision not to accrue that debt. Parents chose to forgo retirement savings or nicer houses in order to sock money away for college. Students chose cheaper state schools over private colleges, or they decided to pass on college altogether.
Millions of other graduates who did take out loans worked for years or decades to pay them off, making their own set of painful career and family sacrifices along the way.
What are we telling those families, if Democrats declare a one-time debt holiday in time for the fall elections? That all their hard choices amounted to a sucker’s bet?
These families followed Clinton’s advice — they worked hard and played by the rules. Some Democrats would treat them now like fans who sat too far from the T-shirt cannon at a football game.
There’s probably a sound way to enact some debt relief — especially if it came with reform of the financing system for higher education, so that we aren’t bound to repeat the same debt cycle again.
Most of us would probably support a program that knocked off a modest amount of debt for only the lowest earners and only for undergraduate study. It would make sense to reward borrowers who chose careers in public service and to expand an Obama administration program helping those who got scammed by for-profit colleges.
But the resurgent left, led by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), has been pushing for much more. In their worldview, compassion and accountability are incompatible; if you demand the latter, you must lack the former.
They never fail to point out that much of the benefit would redound to African Americans — implying that anyone who worries about moral hazard must be, at best, unconcerned about racial equality.
Until recently, it was hard to imagine that Biden, who resisted these arguments during the 2020 primaries, would be converted. Since taking office, he has repeatedly said he didn’t think he had the legal authority to expunge debt but was studying the issue — Washington-speak for abject avoidance.
Several of Biden’s closest and longest-serving advisers were instrumental in crafting Clinton’s policies in the early ’90s. It’s almost inconceivable that they would back something so antithetical to their own governing vision.
But pressure is building to enact some kind of dramatic giveaway before the midterms. And word from the White House is that Biden has magically found his legal authority. Maybe Commander had it in his toy bin.
If Biden makes college retroactively free for millions of borrowers, he’ll not only be sticking it to families who surely would have made less responsible choices had they known they’d never have to repay their debt. He’ll also be steering Democrats back to the 1980s, when they were branded as the party of the proverbial free lunch.
That kind of party probably finds itself exiled from power — at least until another Clinton happens along.
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