During the heat of the presidential primary, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton had a fairly substantial debate over whether Democrats should seek to eliminate tuition at public four-year colleges or merely make them inexpensive enough for students to attend without borrowing. Sanders argued that school should be free, while Clinton argued it should be affordable, quipping that she didn’t want to pay for Donald Trump’s children to get an education.
Now, with the party’s nomination more or less in hand, Clinton seems to be moving closer to Sanders’ position. On Wednesday she offered a revamped higher-education plan that would eventually make public colleges tuition-free for all in-state students from families earning up to $125,000. This, according to Politico, comes after Clinton and Sanders discussed their college agendas in a meeting last month. Meanwhile, the senator from Vermont seems pleased with the new edition. “I want to take this opportunity to applaud Secretary Clinton for the very bold initiative she has brought forth for the finance of public education,” Sanders said outside of his campaign office near Capitol Hill, Politico reported. “This proposal combines some of the boldest proposals she fought for over the course of her campaign with some of the ideas I fought for.”
So what should we take from this? Mostly, I think it’s a sign that Clinton realizes that she isn’t going to win any points with Sanders or his young fans by preaching fiscal prudence and that trying to do so in the face of Donald Trump’s post-factual campaign is a little pointless. Clinton’s and Sanders’ college plans were fundamentally similar in design: Both would give money to states in order to cut tuition for public college students on the condition that states also maintain a certain level of education funding. Philosophically, however, they were quite different. Sanders wanted to make free college a universal benefit; Clinton wanted to target those who needed help the most, while also asking students to work 10 hours a week. Both had virtues and drawbacks. Sanders’ idea was both easier to understand and offered something to influential upper-middle-class voters. Hillary’s was less expensive but also kind of murky (“free” is easier to wrap your head around than “debt-free, if you’re willing to take a job”). Her new version is clearer—if you make less than $125,000, Uncle Sam has you covered—but still aims its spending away from the very wealthiest. The one downside is that it might cost a bit more. But again, this move mostly seems designed to appease to Sanders’ followers, who aren’t exactly sticklers for arithmetic.
Nor, frankly, are most other voters. I doubt many people are going to spend hours lying awake wondering what “additional high-income tax loopholes” Clinton plans to close in order to make up the added expense of her new college agenda, as she’s promised. And so one could argue that Sanders has pushed his opponent to take a more politically potent stand on this issue. Maybe waiting to endorse wasn’t the worst idea, after all.