Student loan gambit could backfire

This week: The Briefing, Vol. X, Issue 35

  • Biden’s student loan gambit could backfire
  • Does Pat Ryan’s win show Republicans peaked too soon?
  • Will abortion save Democrats yet?


Student loan forgiveness: The Biden administration’s attempt to buy off college debtors represents an interesting case study from both illegal and a political perspective. The laws in question seem to point to it being illegal, although that is the sort of thing that takes a lot of time to sort out. But as far as the politics go, it may not be the slam dunk it appears to be.

As with mortgage debt, debts with fixed monthly payments only hang over debtor’s heads in a theoretical fashion. As long as you can make the payments, you’re fine. And unless the entire debt is forgiven, you still have to make the payments — or in this case, you will have to resume making them after the COVID emergency is rescinded.

This means that, in practice, even though this student loan forgiveness could cost taxpayers up to a trillion dollars, it will provide month-to-month relief for a much smaller number of people. 

Meanwhile, the resentment that this policy is generating is also not to be underestimated. Consider the man who confronted Elizabeth Warren in Iowa about how he had worked double shifts to keep his daughter debt-free in college. His neighbor, in contrast, had made far less prudent personal spending choices and was now going to be reimbursed for them via student loan forgiveness. The man then accuses Warren, who was paid $400,000 to teach two college courses, of laughing at him — perhaps it was just nervous laughter, given the awkwardness of the circumstances.

Can this man’s story be turned into a political weapon? In the right hands, maybe it can. Democrats are at least sufficiently afraid that they are all over TV pushing back as hard as possible against anyone who suggests there is any unfairness in the policy of redistributing money from people with lower incomes in fewer opportunities who didn’t go to college to people who have brighter futures and higher earning potential because they did. Perhaps the corporate media and their political wing, the Democratic Party, do protest too much.

Meanwhile, even Democrats are fretting over the potential inflationary effect of this policy. 

To gauge the political effectiveness of this policy, the most instructive comparison might be with the COVID stimulus and PPP money that went out the door during the Trump administration. That policy was far easier to justify — after all, government had forced so many people to stop working and so many businesses to close — but that’s not the important point of comparison. The important point of comparison is that that giveaway didn’t save Trump or even do him much good for him politically. 

Sure, everyone was happy to get the free money. You didn’t see even Trump-hating liberals cutting up their benefit cards or lighting checks on fire. Similarly, many conservative student debtors will be happy to have loans forgiven. But can Biden buy their loyalty, any more than Trump could buy it?

People say that the electorate follows its pocketbook, but that’s not quite true. The most determinative thing about how people vote is their lifestyle. And to the extent that they do follow their pocketbooks, it’s usually not about a lump-sum benefit — it’s usually about the general condition of the economy, economic opportunities, cost of living, the ability to find work and opportunity, etc. 

Governor 2022

Florida: One thing that remains on track for Republicans is the re-election of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who leads former Gov. Charlie Crist (D) with 51%, according to an admittedly sketchy first poll that looks like it might actually be a Democratic push poll. But what last week’s primary showed even more is that DeSantis’s endorsement has a lot of clout in local elections. He personally pushed 19 candidates over the finish line and sent seven others to runoff elections in contested county school board general elections at a time when such elections are Ground Zero in the culture war. Conservatives took over Miami-Dade and a handful of other school systems as a result. 

This should serve as a reminder that leftist indoctrination in education is a very potent issue. It is also a reminder that a good state party requires a good political leader — and that’s what DeSantis is giving his state’s party. 

House 2022

New York-19 Special: It would probably be a mistake to judge any national general election trend based on a special election in downstate New York. But the national media seem determined to do this with respect to last week’s 19th district special election in New York. 

This race was held to replace Antonio Delgado, who resigned to become New York’s lieutenant governor. The media are quite eager to attribute the unexpected victory by Democrat Pat Ryan over Republican Marc Molinaro to some kind of broader trend involving abortion politics.

Granted, this was a very poor performance for Republicans, and abortion was a big part of the messaging. The old 19th district was supposed to favor Republicans over the national electorate by about five points. So yes, it is at least reasonable to argue that this is a bellwether. The public expectations being set prior to the election were that the Democrat would do well just to finish within five points of his opponent, given the political environment.

On the other hand, there were some very weird features of this election. First of all, it was unusual even for low-turnout special elections in that it was held on a special second primary election day in New York. This unusual circumstance was made necessary by court-based delays in redistricting. 

Also, neither Ryan nor Molinaro is running in this same district in November, nor are the two running against one another. Neither candidate therefore had incentive to spend much on ads targeting the other, nor in spending too much time on parts of the district they are not seeking to represent in the next Congress. The mere fact of their being forced to run in multiple overlapping districts at once might have affected the outcome. So might the fact that running against the opponent in this race won’t help in the November race. 

Abortion issue: On the other hand, between the conservative loss of the abortion referendum in Kansas and the loss in this race, Democrats and the media are working very hard to make this into a sign that the overturn of Roe v. Wade is driving the nation’s politics right now and is even going to reverse the course of the 2022 midterm elections.

Then again, these may be outliers. New York City’s Ulster County exurbs are probably not a good proving ground for trends in national party politics. After all, Delgado won and was representing this district. Biden carried it in 2020. The Lower Hudson Valley region has drifted further and further into Democrats’ arms since the turn of the century, turning out of office Republicans such as Nan Hayworth and John Sweeney and elevating such ambitious Democrats as Delgado, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and DCCC Chairman Sean Patrick Maloney.

Meanwhile, the slight changes in the national generic congressional ballot polling — some have pointed out that the averages have swung in Democrats’ favor — are well within the margin of error, and in fact have turned back in Republicans’ favor this month. This all suggests that maybe there isn’t much to read in the tea leaves.

Should Republicans be panicking about abortion? No, they really shouldn’t. If they have to, they should be prepared to lose an election over what is right. But that may still not be necessary. They should be working to make the election about Biden and his economic management. The Biden administration’s numbers are not quite as bad as they’ve ever been, but they remain poor at 42% approval according to the RealClear average. In Gallup’s polling, Biden is now one point behind where Barack Obama was at this point in his presidency, during the run-up to the 2010 election.

With inflation approaching or at a 40-year high, and the recession developing into a more visible phenomenon going into the fall,, we still don’t see any evidence that Biden will be able to abort his way to electoral victory this fall.