Bernie Sanders packs supporters into arenas 28,000 at a time. Donald Trump dominates the news without even bothering to show up, calling into talking-head cable shows and driving the headlines. Hillary Clinton, who started out this cycle as the presumptive first woman to get a major-party nomination for president has become less and less relevant to voters of any stripe. Her favorability numbers have plummeted and the scandal with her covert e-mail server while Secretary of State may provide worse legal consequences than political.
After three or more reboots over the last several months, Hillary Clinton desperately needs a way to look on top of her game and relatable to Democratic Party demographics that won Barack Obama two terms in office. She needs to get more enthusiastic support from the progressive left, which has spent the last few weeks lifting Sanders up from obscurity into a real threat in New Hampshire.
Clinton’s campaign has to energize African-American and Hispanic voters, who have remained diffident, as well as younger voters, who have never really warmed up to the 22-year Beltway veteran.
Clinton’s college-debt proposal promises something for all – that is, all but the taxpayers who will have to carry its load.
From a policy perspective, this proposal makes little sense. Hillary plans to spend $350 billion in an effort to make college “affordable.” Affordable to whom? Federal student loan originations grew by 126 percent between 2001 and 2012, according to a report from the Federal Reserve Bank in New York last month. In 2012, the last year in this study, the government backed $120 billion in loans.
Some might have considered that a success, except the FRNY report notes that the expansion of loans did not actually increase enrollments, although an increase in Pell grants did boost enrollment. Rather, the federal support in student loans fueled an increase in tuition prices, which then required larger student loans. That is a classic bubble, and the obvious solution would be to end the cycle by lowering spending, rather than increasing it.
Instead, though, Hillary’s “affordable” plan will spend an average of $35 billion a year – an increase of more than 25 percent of 2012’s level of federal student loan originations – to guarantee “no interest” loan originations at the state level for students at four-year public colleges and universities. It doubles down on the impulse that has already bloated tuitions, using a method that doesn’t actually expand access. By insisting on no-interest loans, taxpayers will lose value in the transaction, and that assumes that the loans are paid back—a big leap of faith.
Where will all that cash originate? After all, the US is already borrowing 40 cents on the dollar in its annual federal budgets. Hillary proposes to close tax “loopholes” for higher-income Americans, otherwise known as tax hikes. She also proposes to conduct some means testing for student loans, addressing an explosion of subsidized student loans to otherwise affluent families, but most of the cash will come from revenue “enhancements,” in the parlance of the current administration.
In other words, this will be as “affordable” as the Affordable Care Act, and just as effective in exacerbating a problem it intends to alleviate. As policy, it’s not only poorly conceived, but has almost no chance of even gaining a vote in Congress.
But that really isn’t the point. Hillary Clinton will be 69 years old when Election Day 2016 arrives, the oldest Democratic presidential nominee since … well, ever. The previous record holder for a non-incumbent Democratic nominee was Lewis Cass, a US Ambassador to France who lost to Zachary Taylor in 1848 at 66 years of age. As a candidate, she has much more in common with Bob Dole in 1996 and John McCain in 2008, two elder statesmen in a party that squared off against figures of the next generation and lost in large part to the enthusiasm among younger voters for their competitors.
In order to get a share of Obama’s energy for a general election, Hillary has to pander to younger voters, as well as the less affluent and minority demographics. Those voters have a massive student loan burden, largely thanks to those pushing government subsidies that inflated the higher education bubble in the first place. For older Americans, the chief economic issue will be jobs and growth, but younger voters have a more acute situation.
They need real solutions to their debt burden, and will likely see that as a key issue in any economic plan from the Parties and the candidates. This is her bid to gain traction in demographic categories that might otherwise write her off as a holdover from a nearly bygone political era.
In other words, even if it’s bad policy – and it is – it’s smart politics.
Republicans have a real chance to make inroads among younger voters in this election cycle. Not only will Obama finally retire from the scene and with him the emotional connection that sustained Democrats in the last two cycles, but all of the potential Democratic successors are pushing 70 or past it. Sanders is already 74, and will be 75 on Election Day. Joe Biden, the Flavor of the Week as Hillary’s legal woes expand, will be almost 73, and has been in Washington nearly twice as long as the Clintons have.
In comparison, most of the Republican field is far younger. Donald Trump will be 70 next year, and Rick Perry 65, but the rest of the field is significantly younger. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, and Scott Walker are all in their 40s and the rest in their 50s. That won’t be enough, though. Republicans have to address the real issues facing these millennials, especially those created by activist government and top-down market interventions that have rendered them unable to acquire wealth in the traditional manner even after they got their college degrees. If Hillary Clinton’s proposal remains unanswered, or simply shrugged off without any substantive policy option to offer, millennials will gravitate to the party that at least speaks to their lives.