After keeping the price tag of her major campaign initiatives pretty close to the vest, Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton has begun to show her hand.
Over the weekend, she rolled out a new proposal to boost spending on highways, bridges and other infrastructure projects by $275 billion over five years, including enough funds to launch a new national infrastructure bank to provide low-interest loans and other incentives to supplement overall federal spending on transportation.
That came just weeks after the former secretary of state unveiled a $30 billion plan to rescue the struggling economies of the nation’s coal producing communities – including more infrastructure, tax breaks to encourage investment and scores of measures to help local schools and protect miners’ retirement and health benefits.
In contrast to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Democratic socialist who has been rolling out dozens of proposals with price tags adding up to $18 trillion according to The Wall Street Journal, Clinton has been something of a piker. Although there is still plenty of time for her to turn on the spigot of costly campaign promises to appeal to her party’s liberal base, Clinton for now has made campaign promises costing slightly below $1 trillion.
By far, Clinton’s priciest initiative is a college affordability compact that would spare students attending public colleges in their states from having to borrow to pay tuition. It would also significantly cut interest rates on student loans for others while enabling 25 million Americans with student debt to refinance at today’s rates, saving the typical borrower $2,000 over the life of their loans. That proposal, formally unveiled in August, would cost $350 billion over ten years.
Then there’s Clinton’s childcare initiative released in June – one that would guarantee every four-year-old in the country access to high quality pre-school education. Clinton started her career as an advocate for the Children’s Defense Fund, and she has long championed the availability of childcare and preschool classes. President Obama unveiled a similar proposal in 2013, and now Clinton is promising to build on it.
Although her campaign has yet to attach a specific price tag to this major pre-school initiative, Obama’s universal childcare proposal would cost $200 billion in subsidies over the coming decade. That is roughly the cost estimate used by The Wall Street Journal in calculating the price tags of Clinton and Sanders’ campaign agendas.
Last August, Clinton vowed that her administration would hit a target of having more than a half billion solar panels installed across the country by the end of her first term as part of a major alternative energy initiative. She also set a 10-year-goal of generating enough renewable energy to power every home in the United States. Estimated cost? About $60 billion over a decade. However, campaign officials say much of the cost can be offset by closing loopholes and eliminating subsidies to oil and gas companies.
Finally, in response to what she deemed a “quiet epidemic” of heroin and prescription opiate abuse, Clinton in early September proposed a $10 billion plan to treat addicts and attempt to limit the imprisonment of nonviolent drug offenders.
Taken together, the cost of the two infrastructure programs, the college affordability plan, the childcare initiative, the substance abuse program and the solar panel installation totals $925 billion.
That, by no means, is the end of the story. Clinton intends to spend the rest of the week touting her policies and programs to help the middle class and spur more economic growth, and there is almost certain to be other big-ticket items tucked into her speeches.
“Hillary will invest in infrastructure, clean energy, and scientific and medical research to create jobs and strengthen our economy,” Clinton’s campaign website declares. “And she’ll provide tax relief to working families and small businesses. That’s how we’ll move toward a full employment economy that creates jobs, pushes businesses to compete over workers, and raises incomes.”
Moreover, while she has discussed a few tax reform measures, including extending tax cuts of up to $2,500 per college student, reducing by 15 percent taxes on businesses that share profits with employees, and eliminating the “carried interest” loophole for wealthy hedge fund managers and other Wall Street financiers, Clinton has yet to present her comprehensive tax reform package. Without that, it’s impossible to assess at this point how much her tax policies could add to the long-term debt.
One possible explanation for her seeming reticence in revealing her spending plans is that as the Democratic frontrunner, she doesn’t feel as compelled as Sanders to promise voters the moon. Moreover, by keeping the scope of her spending initiatives under wraps, it’s easier for her to zing Sanders for going overboard in demanding higher taxes on the rich and corporations to finance his spending and tax relief for the middle class. Sanders would even support a small pay roll tax on middle-class Americans to help pay for expanded Social Security benefits.
Clinton boasted to a Dallas, Texas, audience following the Democrat’s Nov. 14 presidential debate with Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, “I was actually the only one on that debate stage on Saturday who will commit to raising your wages and not your taxes.”
"I can't see how you can be serious about raising incomes if you also want to slap new taxes on them, no matter what the taxes would pay for,” she said, according to CNN.
William Galston, a political scholar with the Brookings Institution and former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, said there could be another dynamic at work here. Clinton is a self-proclaimed “progressive who likes to get things done” and understands that whatever she proposes during the campaign “has to pass the reality test.”
“She is trying to put on the table serious, realistic proposals that have a chance of getting adopted,” Galston said in an interview on Monday. “I would say that right now, confidence in government to deliver on much of anything is at such a low ebb, I think it’s the responsibility of every presidential candidate – certainly of the next president –not to promise more than there is a reasonable prospect of delivering.”
“Otherwise you’re just taking the problem of public trust and confidence which is bad enough and making it worse,” he added. “Sanders is saying what he clearly really believes, which is very much to his credit. And to the extent he is acting strategically, he’s trying to influence the general structure of the debate by saying that the progressive imagination is not as strictly bounded as some more traditional liberals believe. . . but I think it’s better as a campaigning strategy than it is as a governing strategy.”