Hillary Clinton higher-ed initiative as Shrek

Hillary Clinton’s campaign is issuing her complicated anti-college-debt plan today, and the analyses are starting to pop up. It may be useful to think of the plan as operating in several layers:

  • Campaign promise as symbolic politics. Campaigns call out to various constituencies in hopes of attracting support on the basis of various symbolic and real affinities. In this case, the intended message is, I care about your family and am competent to protect your interests. (All serious candidates will try to project this message.) See Patrick Riccards’ comments about one of the locations Clinton will use in talking about the plan, as an example of why the symbolic layer matters.
  • Campaign promise as shiny ob–squirrel! Campaigns can also make promises and issue statements as quasi-events in themselves. I do not think today’s release from the Clinton campaign has this as an intended effect — the package is complicated enough that putting together the pieces probably determined the timing of the release, not as a counterpoint to the Trump spectacle on the GOP side.
  • Campaign promise as a predictor of policy initiatives. John Edwards made health care an issue in 2008, Hillary Clinton proposed individual mandates, and Barack Obama’s response to both of them predicted his pushing through health-care reform in 2010.
  • Campaign promise as predictor of governing patterns.

Of these, the last is most interesting to me vis-a-vis Hillary Clinton.

The coalition politics of this plan are fascinating: yes, there is the homage to Bill Clinton’s administration (the expansion of AmeriCorps), but the bulk of the plan comprise pieces stitched together from recent policy proposals, some cosponsored by Republicans in the Senate, plus a few policy tweaks. There is the proposal to expand the American Opportunity Tax Credit. There is the proposal to let low-income students use Pell grants for living expenses. There is a grant program to create incentives for states to reinvest in public higher education, plus a path for public colleges to apply separately in case states do not take the opportunity. Altogether, this appears to confirm Ezra Klein’s impression that Clinton is very comfortable with insider politics. This is in contrast with President Obama, who understood the need for inside politics but addressed that need by appointing close aides to whom he could delegate the task, beginning with Joe Biden as vice president and Rahm Emanuel as his first chief of staff. It is also in contrast with Bill Clinton, who was most (perhaps too) comfortable with personal politics in contrast with institutionalized insider politics.

How does this play out in education policy, including K-12? It means that if Clinton wins, we are less likely to see the policy approach we have seen under Obama, what one might call the Policy by the Elect approach: pick a few stars on whom you rely for policy ideas, and let them reach out to policy experts or let them be the policy experts. In economics, this led to an underpowered stimulus. In education, this led to Race to the Top. Clinton is likely to rely on trusted allies and insiders for key administrative jobs, but I suspect more likely to charge those insiders with reaching out broadly.

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