If there is one thing that Hillary Clinton has proved this election season, it is that she has the ability to change. (The term of art politicians prefer is “evolve.”) For her critics, on the left and the right, that’s a flaw, evidence that she has few bedrock principles. For her supporters, that’s part and parcel of her appeal: They are counting on her flexibility to get things done. When it comes to the question of promoting good policy, however, this slippery brand of politics can turn out to be self-defeating. One of the best examples of this is her adroit shifting around college policy.
In the primary campaign against Bernie Sanders, Clinton faced an opponent who campaigned on universal tuition-free public college. Clinton sensed that the party had shifted to the left on the issue, and adjusted accordingly—but not so much that she ended up with the same proposal as Sanders. She distinguished herself by being slightly to Sanders’s right, proposing policies that instead concentrated on eliminating debt and increasing affordability. As she memorably stated when criticizing Sanders’s plan, “I disagree with free college for everybody. I don’t think taxpayers should be paying to send Donald Trump’s kids to college.” No decent liberal wants to do that, right?
Now that she is the presumptive nominee, Clinton still has to win over Sanders’s base. To that end, on Wednesday she announced additional measures to her New College Compact, one of which eliminates public college tuition for families making under $125,000, covering more than 80 percent of Americans. Her proposal is a huge nod to Sanders, falling just short of his call for universal tuition-free public college, and will undoubtedly help her in attracting some of his young supporters. It also shows that Clinton is capable of making big steps to her left.
But, of course, she can’t go too far in that direction. By making her new proposal means-tested (income-based), Clinton ensures that she doesn’t backtrack on her promise not to subsidize the Trump tots of the universe. Even her announcement carefully emphasizes the idea of a “debt-free” education, in contrast to the “tuition-free” college plan she previously disparaged.
The notion that we live in a world where Trump’s kids would ever attend public college (they didn’t) or that they would use free education to game the system is ludicrous. (As many have pointed out, with this line of logic, we might as well eliminate K-12 education.) But Clinton did her job so well that the idea is here to stay. As Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple University, told The Washington Post, “I’m glad that she has moved toward a real recognition that the current system is not okay and is not sufficiently universal. It’s just that she still seems very committed to the idea that we must not give Trump’s kids the potential of a benefit.”
The thing is, Clinton’s new proposal so closely resembles Sanders’s proposal that it’s almost silly she doesn’t just come out in favor of free public college. Her plan may even cover more people than it currently outlines. Consider this: It’s improbable that the proposal wouldn’t incorporate some sort of phase-out so that families making, say, $125,001 wouldn’t immediately be cut off from the benefit. Otherwise, families whose income was on the threshold would face a sharp cliff. This could potentially make her plan even bigger, offering some tuition benefit, on a decreasing scale, to those making more than $125,000. So why not go for gold?
It’s important to note that universality is a significant part of Sanders’s plan. It brands higher education as a public right, rather than a product to be made more affordable. If you look at welfare policies in our country, universal ones—Social Security, Medicare, K-12 education—are much more politically durable than those targeted to the poor, such as food stamps and housing vouchers. Universal benefits are also less clunky and cheaper to administer, since you don’t have to determine who is or isn’t eligible. They often have a better take-up rate (the number of people who are eligible and who use the service) since they are simpler and less stigmatized.
Clinton’s shaved-down version of Sanders’s plan might carry more weight if she could make the argument that it is more likely to pass in Congress. But she can’t. Her proposal is already facing the same big hurdles and criticisms as his—namely, its hefty cost (while her team hasn’t put out a price tag for her plan yet, it’s likely to be comparably high). Clinton’s team no doubt looked at the polls and determined that Americans are split on the issue. But there is strong support for free college among Democrats, particularly among younger and poorer voters, both of whom Clinton needs in a general election that will be based largely on turnout. If her plan is a symbolic gesture towards young voters (it is), “free college for many” doesn’t quite have the same ring as “free college, period.”
President Barack Obama pulled a similar trick on Clinton in the 2008 primary, promising a universal health care plan that lacked one ingredient—the individual mandate—that put him just to her right. The idea was that it showed Obama was capable of building bridges with the other side. It was a clever move, but the problem with clever politics is that it can translate into not-so-clever policy. Obama instantly reversed himself when he became president.
Whether Clinton can do the same is another question. By undermining Sanders so well in the primary, Clinton has hobbled her own campaign’s ability to endorse good policy, even in the ideal. This is the problem with setting up walls—you just might find yourself running into them.