The Coming Political Fight over Student Debt
Republicans think student debt forgiveness is a good issue for them, here's how we can make sure they are wrong
Last week, President Biden made the critical and long-awaited decision to cancel a portion of student debt.
The President’s decision predictably sparked uproar from Republicans, centrists, and even some Democrats. I am someone who long argued Biden should fulfill his campaign pledge and use his executive authority to cancel $10,000 in student debt. Addressing the student debt crisis was the morally and substantively correct thing to do. I also believe that there was a strong political argument for doing so. To reference a case I made a few months ago in this newsletter:
Canceling student debt is an opportunity to demonstrate political strength and gain some momentum. Getting some of your biggest supporters to applaud you has an exponential effect in the age of social media. Seeing people applaud Biden can start a virtuous cycle. However, it’s important to remember that the overwhelming majority of younger Americans have no student debt… Canceling student debt wouldn’t solve all of the Democrats’ political problems, but it would be a step in the right direction.
I stand by that case, but in the wake of the President’s action, Democrats got nervous pretty quickly. Anxiety is the Democratic state of equilibrium. And there had been so much good news recently that we all went looking for something to worry about.
Are we correct to worry? How are the politics likely to play out, and what actions can we take to win the coming messaging war?
What the Polling Says
Canceling student debt is broadly popular. According to two Wall Street Journal/NBC News polls from earlier this year::
46% of voters saying they’d more likely to support a candidate who wanted to cancel some student-loan debt, versus 33% who would be less likely to support that candidate.
Similarly, a recent poll from Data for Progress and the Student Borrower Protection Center showed that a large majority of Americans support canceling some or all student debt for every borrower.
On its face, this seems like a slam dunk. So why did it take so long for the Biden Administration to make a decision? And why did Tim Ryan and Catherine Cortez-Masto — two Democrats in tough races — criticize the President’s announcement?
Polling done before a bill is passed or an action taken is a theoretical exercise. It hypothesizes the public’s reaction to something, but this polling occurs in a vacuum. Public opinion can change quickly under live political fire once powerful, well-funded voices start making the counter case. How the media covers things also has an impact. Just because something is good politics now, doesn’t mean it will still be good politics on Election Day. That’s up to all of us. How hard (and smart) will we fight to persuade the public?
The Political Pitfalls
The Republicans leapt to attack the student debt issue for several reasons. First, they are desperate to change the subject from their extremist position on abortion, their comfort with insurrections past and future, and their abject fealty to a clown show of a former President hiding the nuclear codes in his basement. Second, the Republicans are still reeling from the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act — a widely popular bill that undercuts the primary GOP argument against Democrats. Finally, they see an opportunity to excite their base and divide ours.
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