Hillary Clinton knocked Bernie Sanders’ tuition-free-college plan at Thursday night’s Democratic debate by citing a saying of her father’s:
The free college offer, you know, my late father said if somebody promises you something for free, read the fine print. You read the fine print and here’s what it says.
The fine print says this: That the federal government will cover two-thirds of the cost and require the states, even those led by Republican governors, to carry out what the remaining one-third is going to cost.
Now, Clinton’s father was, in her words, a “rock-ribbed, up-by-your-bootstraps, conservative Republican.” (As a teenager Clinton famously supported Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964.) Though he passed away in 1993, we can probably assume that Hugh Rodham would have been happy to hear himself cited him in an attack on a left-wing socialist such as Sanders—though perhaps surprised to hear that it was his own daughter, who ended up as a self-proclaimed progressive, who was doing the citing.
The path to this moment of folksy political irony began a little over a month ago, at the debate in Miami, when Clinton brought her dad up more generally:
Senator Sanders has talked about free college for everybody. He’s talked about universal, single payer health care for everybody. And yet, when you ask questions, as many of us have and more importantly, independent experts, it’s very hard to get answers.
And a lot of the answers say that this is going to be much more expensive than anything Senator Sanders is admitting to. This is going to increase the federal government dramatically. And, you know, my dad used to say, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Then, at a March 30 speech in Purchase, New York, and at an April 10 appearance in Baltimore, Clinton used a line about reading “the fine print” in reference to Sanders and tuition. Here’s a quote from the New York event:
I’ll give you one example. [Sanders] goes around telling young people he’s going to give them free college. I wish it were so, but you go and read the fine print, which anybody should do [when] anyone makes a promise about something being free. You read that fine print and [it] said, yeah, it will be free if the governors of America put in about $28 billion.
(Note that Clinton’s father, at this point, is not mentioned in relation to the fine-print-reading.)
Bill Clinton seems to have used the line too during an early-April appearance in Wyoming. From the New York Times:
“There are a lot of young college students who have been very enthusiastic about her opponent because he promises free tuition for everyone,” he said. (Mr. Sanders has proposed free tuition at public colleges.)
“If you read the fine print,” he said, “the free tuition comes two-thirds from the federal government and one-third from the state.” He said it was unrealistic to expect the state’s Republican governor and Legislature to support the program.
And then, tonight, we saw the hybrid version, in which the idea of checking the fine print is now specifically attributed to Hugh Rodham. It’s not a bad piece of general-election-oriented rhetoric; Hillary gets to associate herself with a thrifty, sensible father figure, the kind of person that an undecided voter might want to put in charge of planning a road trip or a federal budget. The fact that this person in reality was a Goldwaterite who probably wouldn’t vote for his daughter if he were around today tends to get lost in all the folksiness.
It’s a beautiful thing, the natural birth cycle of a sound bite.