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Who deserves relief? And who should pay for it?
These two questions were at the heart of the political conversation earlier this week as two Democratic presidential candidates announced very different policies that offer very different answers to these questions. And garnered very different responses.
With his (poorly named) “war tax,” Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) took a kind of path well worn by Democrats in recent decades: Offer a break to a small, specific group of people that will please fiscal conservatives.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) hearkened back to FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society by offering a national plan to forgive all student debt, a massive project that would fundamentally change the lives of millions of Americans.
Which of these approaches is more moral, more correct, and more possible will be the debate that defines the Democrats in 2020. Is it better to create massive, universal programs that redefine the way America works or is it better to carve out specific niches in the population for benefits, privileging fiscal responsibility while working within the established status quo?
And it mirrors a debate that seems to be clearly decided online, but may not be reflective come poll time. Big, bold, and hyperbolic hit all the pleasure centers for extreme Twitter users, but what will resonates with the public remains to be seen.
It’s unclear which side will win this debate, but in the opening salvos of the Democratic primary, it is clear that a plan like Sanders’ is going to get more attention, for good and ill, than something like O’Rourke’s war tax.
News about Sanders’ debt relief plan trickled out Sunday evening, and on Monday morning, he, along with Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), proposed a $1.25 trillion plan to cancel all student debt in America. This comprised the bulk of a larger plan with a cost of over $2 trillion that would provide grants for things like books and transportation as well as provide assistance for trade school education, apprenticeship, HBCUs, and tribal colleges.
This plan comes on the heels of a similar plan from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), which is less ambitious but has a similarly large scope.
When introducing her and Sanders’ plan, Omar drew a distinction between the kind of plan they were rolling out and proposals that offer less universal solutions. She said, “Rather than making exceptions, let’s end this crisis entirely once and for all.”
Sanders added, “I believe in universality.”
This universality resonated. Progressive and working-class people immediately started telling stories about how debt has crippled them financially with the hashtag #CancelTheDebt.
I have $40k in debt even after grants, and without $600+ monthly payments I’d be able to save for my future and pay for summer and school year activities for my sisters. #CancelStudentDebt— Summer Jac ☀️ (@JayQLyn) June 25, 2019
Just as quickly, conservatives took to the internet to decry what they saw as an unfair handout. They too reacted strongly to what would amount to a massive restructuring of an average American’s economic life.
Don’t.— The Reagan Battalion (@ReaganBattalion) June 24, 2019
This is injustice.
Just imagine working months and months then using the money to buy a piece of jewelry, then finding out that the Jewelry store is giving out the same piece to the masses for free.
Would that make you angry? Would that cut the value of your piece? https://t.co/iVYlqlu0PE
When you say #cancelstudentdebt, you’re saying a minority of people who had the advantage of obtaining a degree should have their debt paid off by hardworking taxpayers, 2/3 of whom don’t have degrees themselves, or already paid their own student debt off.— Dan Crenshaw (@DanCrenshawTX) June 25, 2019
This is immoral.
Both sides spent the day lobbing statistics back and forth: For better or worse the battle over student debt had begun, and it seemed that the entire web was involved.
False.— Bill Neidhardt (@BNeidhardt) June 24, 2019
The bottom 80% hold $1.1 trillion of the $1.6 trillion total student debt. How much of this proposal goes to the top one-tenth of one percent? Nothing.
Not to mention it will cut the racial wealth gap by *more than half* for young households. #CancelStudentDebt https://t.co/04xvAUEMgs
By contrast, O’Rourke’s “war tax” was met with much derision, few defenders, and the discourse around it quickly faded away.
The plan, which would force “non-military” households to pay a tax to fund healthcare for veterans, was widely mocked, as progressive pundits were incredulous at a plan that asks civilians to kick in more to a war machine that costs $700 billion and is engaging in numerous unpopular conflicts.
If that weren’t enough to sink the proposal, the language of his proposal also calls for this to kick in for “future wars,” anticipating more military adventurism abroad.
Me, dumb: what if we had a war tax on defense contractors to get veterans better care— Ken Klippenstein (@kenklippenstein) June 24, 2019
Beto, wise: what if we had a war tax on working people for wars the vast majority of them never supportedhttps://t.co/W5e9wO7BEA
[with incredible charisma] I first came up with the idea of a War Tax while listening to my favorite genre of music,,,, punk rock— Patrick Blanchfield (@PatBlanchfield) June 24, 2019
Few veterans or military-minded folks were there to defend the policy, as it simply offers a new funding mechanism rather than a meaningful, more broad-minded fix for the problems that have plagued the VA for years.
With O’Rourke’s proposal, we see the limits of limited plans. The bill found few ardent defenders online and few people even took it particularly seriously. The Democratic electorate has come to view plans like this as little more than tinkering around the margins, and in the fast and furious news cycles of today, plans that don’t resonate get lost in the shuffle.
The military did ultimately become a major factor in the discussion, but with respect to Sanders’ bill, not O’Rourke’s. Opponents of Sanders’ plan suggested forgiving all student debt would be unfair to the military members and veterans who had “earned” their education thanks to the GI Bill. Proponents argued that the bill would stop poor and working-class people from feeling like they have no option but to join the military to pay for an education. And in that way, the military became central to the debate.
I graduated from college 8 years ago today. I was 28. I refused to go into debt for college so I joined the military. I kept my grades up and they took care of me. #CancelStudentDebt is a slap in the face to many like me.— Kristin (@sodangfancy22) June 24, 2019
You want to #CancelStudentDebt? How about a plan to to commit four years to the U.S. military and your debt is paid by the GI Bill? I'll be damned if I am going to pay your debt. Smart enough to get a degree but not to understand the promise to pay it back? Whiny fuques. #MAGA— Alinablue 🌟🌟🌟 (@Alinablue1213) June 24, 2019
I graduated from college 7 years ago. I was 24. I joined the military because I had debt. #CancelStudentDebt would have prevented the military destroying my mental health and giving me PTSD. Your path is not everyone else’s.— Jeff Clark (@KeJiefu) June 25, 2019
That the military became a key part of the conversation around Sanders’ bill while O’Rourke’s bill hitting the discourse shows that it is O’Rourke’s tactics that are flawed, not the issue he was trying to tackle. If he had proposed a massive overhaul to the VA or sweeping improvements to veteran care, perhaps he would have made waves. But, instead, he simply went to bat for changing a funding mechanism and was quickly lost in the shuffle.
This brings us back to the question that has become the central schism in the Democratic primary. On one side, you have Sanders and Warren, who have relatively universal plans that eschew limitations and means testing. On the other, you have the rest of the field that has been busy pushing out plans that are defined by their limitations, such as family tax credit expansions (Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand), increasing Pell Grants (Mayor Pete Buttigieg), and middle-class tax cuts (Sen. Kamala Harris).
Both of Sanders’ and O’Rourke’s plans address urgent issues in our society by asking for taxpayers to foot the bill. But, what separates Sanders’ plan from O’Rourke’s is ambition. O’Rourke’s tinkering with the funding mechanism keeps much of what doesn’t work about the VA in place, as the right marches to privatism what has been effective national healthcare for soldiers. Sanders’ plan stakes out an ambitious pathway to changing the way we think about Americans think of society.
O’Rourke is asking average citizens to bear more of the burden of the decisions made by the elite. Sanders is asking the wealthy to redistribute their wealth to create greater opportunities. And in this, we have two competing answers to the questions that matter in 2020.
We are just at the beginning of a long election season, but the steady support of Sanders and the recent polling surge for Warren indicates that voters are responding to these universal plans. All of the other candidates have received criticism from the left for their caveats on big-ticket proposals like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, and have generally failed to break through with the public, with the exception of Joe Biden who has opted for a less issue-based campaign thus far.
Biden’s campaign is representative of another facet of this debate. While it is clear that the tides of policy wonks, writers, and thinkers on the left are turning toward universal programs, it is unclear how the electorate will respond. As the hosts of the more centrist podcast, Pod Save America are fond of saying, “Twitter is not real life.”
Admittedly, we don’t know which of these strategies will win. The electorate is notoriously fickle: Medicare for All consistently polls better than “single payer” even though they are the same thing. Universal programs have led Democratic candidates to success before: they got FDR four terms. But, this is just the beginning of a battle to reshape the Democratic Party.
If Sanders and Warren continue to dominate the media landscape, and that dominance translates to electoral victory, the lesson will be clear: Democratic voters want big, universal policies, and the days of carve-outs and means testing as Democratic orthodoxy may have come to an end.
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Brenden Gallagher is a politics reporter and cultural commentator. His work has been published by Motherboard, Complex, and VH1. He’s the co-founder of Beer Money Films, an indie production company. Based in Los Angeles, he works in television drama as a writers assistant.