You can almost feel President Biden’s discomfort on the issue of student loan forgiveness emanating from the White House.
Or more specifically, the administration fears how Republicans are trying to use this issue to paint Democrats as the party of the elite, and the GOP as the party of the working class.
That’s an argument worth unpacking. When you do, you quickly find that while Republicans have a couple of reasonable points to make, in the end they have almost nothing to offer the regular folks they claim to speak for.
Americans are now carrying nearly $1.8 trillion in student loan debt, and for many, it’s a crushing burden. While some have proposed to wipe out all student debt and others have suggested forgiving up to $50,000 for each borrower, Biden has more modestly suggested he prefers capping the forgiveness at $10,000, available only to those with incomes below $125,000 a year.
There are some tricky policy choices here, requiring lines to be drawn and trade-offs to be made. No one program would satisfy everyone.
That’s how policymaking works. But Republicans are excused from that difficulty, because they usually don’t think it’s government’s business to address this kind of problem, and many of them simply don’t care much about policy at all.
They are, however, in the midst of a project we might call emotional populism. It’s distinct from regular populism in that only occasionally and halfheartedly does it find expression in pragmatic proposals. Most of the time it’s just about creating anger at the “elite.”
That anger exists for its own sake; its destination is not some kind of practical change that improves the lives of ordinary people, but simply the election of more Republicans.
This applies to the student loan issue: Look at those elitist liberal Democrats, Republicans say, giving handouts to snooty entitled college-educated punks, with their pronouns and Instagram and avocado toast! Don’t you just hate them?
There’s an honest, if harsh, argument against student loan forgiveness: You borrowed the money, and if it created debt you can’t get out from under no matter how hard you work, then too bad. Everybody’s got problems.
But since Republicans frame this as a conflict between the elite whom Democrats supposedly represent and the working people the GOP supposedly represents, especially those who never went to college and so have no such debt, then we have to ask: What precisely do Republicans want to do for those working-class people?
The real answer is: not much. Republican rhetoric is saturated with class-based appeals to resentment, but the substantive proposals they offer are incredibly thin.
What does Ohio GOP U.S. Senate nominee J.D. Vance’s website propose? He says he wants more manufacturing jobs, but doesn’t say how he’ll make that happen, other than a pledge to “fight against the corporate elites who want to continue the status quo.” In fact, almost everything that passes for a policy idea from Vance is a just statement about who he hates, from tech companies to China to Black Lives Matter.
That’s not to say nobody has any proposals; they just don’t offer much. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) has a proposal to tax university endowments to fund vocational education — which he specifically characterizes as punishment for those universities being too liberal.
More money for vocational education is a great idea, and it’s one that plenty of Democrats support. But Cotton isn’t seeking to craft bipartisan legislation that could actually pass Congress. What does that tell you?
Some think tank conservatives have proposed policies meant to make life easier for ordinary families, including an expanded child tax credit and paid family leave. There are two important things to know about them: First, many of those ideas have been proposed by Democrats, and when they are, Republicans fight against them. Second, when Republicans have power, they do nothing about them.
Democrats’ Build Back Better bill was absolutely stuffed with programs to help the nonelite, from child care to health care to community college to affordable housing and much more. Republicans didn’t say “Let’s separate all this good stuff for regular folks and work together to pass it.” They simply opposed the whole thing.
We have a terrible inequality problem in America today, and it might be tricky to design a student loan forgiveness program that makes it better and not worse. But it’s clear that Republicans have a single priority, which is to make working-class people resentful and angry without actually presenting them with much of anything to improve their lives.
Perhaps the next time they have power in Washington, Republicans will discover their inner wonks, and put in the hard work of tackling complex policy challenges that require difficult choices and inevitable political compromise. But I wouldn’t bet on it.