The reactions among Republicans towards Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness program have been strong. In some cases, well beyond what’s merited by a policy disagreement. (“Hell is real and these people will burn.”)
But if Republicans are united in their scorn for the move, Democrats have been divided in their responses. Last week after Biden announced the plan, which allows for $10,000 to $20,000 in debt relief, candidates in swingy seats and districts started distancing themselves from the policy.
Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, who’s in a surprisingly competitive race with Republican J.D. Vance for Ohio’s open Senate seat, said that “waiving debt for those already on a trajectory to financial security sends the wrong message to the millions of Ohioans without a degree working just as hard to make ends meet.” His position is that the policy isn’t targeted enough and doesn’t address the root causes of soaring higher education costs, and he would’ve preferred tax cuts “for all working people” instead.
Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, up for reelection against Republican Adam Laxalt, also opposed the executive action, saying, “we should be focusing on passing my legislation to expand Pell Grants for lower income students, target loan forgiveness to those in need, and actually make college more affordable for working families.”
In the House, vulnerable Democrats like Kansas Rep. Sharice Davids and Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger too, have noted that they would’ve gone about this a different way, so to speak, while adding they were happy for those able to benefit from it. That second part was enough for Republican campaign groups to declare these Democrats enthusiastic supporters of it.
Forgiving student debt for such a broad pool of borrowers is not something Democratic administrations of the past would’ve considered. One big reason: There wasn’t as much student debt! But it’s also the case that the college-educated make up a much greater share of the contemporary Democratic coalition than they did previously. Many of these college-educated Democratic voters like to say, nobly and with a pat to one’s back, that they vote against their economic self-interest. Student loan relief is more of a straightforward political transaction.
The coalition that Tim Ryan needs to win a majority in Ohio is not the current national Democratic coalition. Ohio’s percentage of adults with college degrees is lower than the national average, and it’s an older, whiter state than the country at large. That’s why it’s a lean-red state now, and Ryan needs white, non-college, working class votes in a way that Democrats in other states might not. Republicans are working quite hard to foment cultural resentment among non-college voters towards the Democratic president’s move to forgive student debt. Ryan is not going to let himself be tagged.
Nevada, similarly, has a relatively low degree of residents with a college degree, and a pillar of the Democratic coalition there is made up of the working-class food and entertainment employees in Las Vegas. Cortez Masto will keep some separation from the policy, too.
But refusing to hold ticker-tape parades for student debt forgiveness—or for the improving-but-still-unpopular Biden, for that matter—doesn’t mean these candidates can’t benefit from the move, politically.
Republicans have been aggressively messaging that this is a pay-off to elite spoiled graduates of “woke universities” that will worsen inflation, and Democrats have been aggressively counter-messaging that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene sucks. The early polling of the American populace, however, shows an effective split on support for the proposal.
Who’s really energized by this one way or another, aside from everyone in my Twitter feed? As we know, Republicans are hopping mad—but they’ve been hopping mad since Joe Biden took office. Younger Biden voters, however—especially those who’ve just had $10,000 to $20,000 in debt wiped—widely approve of the move and, if anything, don’t think it went far enough. They also just happen to be one of the key bases of support Biden lost over the last year, according to polling. Between this and recent action from Congress on climate change, large swaths of young voters may, finally, feel like they’re getting attention from the Democrats they put in charge on the issues that matter to them.
Distancing yourself from Biden’s latest policy in a state where he’s unpopular, while recovering long-lost young voter energy from Biden’s latest policy? It would be a neat trick, if they can pull it off.