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Student debt relief shows why campaign promises matter


President Joe Biden’s decision to cancel some student loans has generated more bad arguments for and against the plan than perhaps any political decision in years. Of the dodgy takes, my current favorite is the idea that loans shouldn’t be forgiven because some recipients went to Ivy League schools. A close second is an argument for Biden’s plan noting that millions of small businesses had their pandemic loans canceled, unaware that these loans were designed to be forgiven and weren’t so much loans as a means of prevent the economy from collapsing.

Of course, bad arguments don’t tell us whether a policy is good or not.

What the feverish rhetoric combined with bad logic tells us is that the decision aroused strong feelings. That alone could explain why Biden chose to go ahead with the plan and why Republicans oppose it so fiercely. Politicians don’t always read the mood accurately; the truth is that very few people get upset about public policy decisions, especially ones that don’t affect them personally. Unless their party is working hard to upset them in the first place.

So a lesson to be learned from the student debt debate is that politicians are always on the lookout for policy issues that will engage their supporters. As long as the things they identify are real political problems that need to be solved (that’s not always the case), that’s a good way to make representative democracy work, giving politicians strong incentives to try to solve the problems that concern people.

The loan program is also a reminder of how far most presidents will go to fulfill their campaign promises. As political party scholar Seth Masket puts it:

Just like the appointment [Ketanji Brown Jackson] to the Court was fulfilling a promise Biden had made to [Rep. James] Clyburn, student debt relief fulfills a promise made by Biden to [Sen. Bernie] Sanders. Increasingly, the 2020 Dem nominating contest continues to define this administration.

In this era of partisan presidencies, roughly since the administration of Ronald Reagan, these promises are often made as part of the party nomination process. Sometimes this takes the form of explicit commitments to various important people and groups. At other times it’s more subtle, with candidates altering their campaign politics to better match that of key groups. Either way, what happens in nomination campaigns is critically important because it renegotiates political positions and party priorities — and that usually matters more, in the long run, than which candidate wins. .

Of course, this means that policies are often political in the sense that they are adopted with the aim of benefiting the coalition of the ruling party – or at least in response to groups within that party who have strong feelings about the policy in question. This, too, is a perfectly valid way for a democracy to function. This is especially the case when combined with a strong constraint against parties that simply reward their strongest supporters: if they ignore most voters, they risk losing future elections.

Seen in this light, the president’s key job is not the pursuit of good policy. Instead, it is a process of balancing good party management with policy choices without alienating the rest of the electorate too much. This is why good presidents are more likely to be seasoned politicians than policy experts.

For weekend reading, here are some of the best recent articles from political scientists:

• Matt Grossmann talks to Rachel Porter about primary elections and amateur candidates.

• David A. Hopkins on the influence of moderates.

• Matthew Green and Jeffrey Crouch on Newt Gingrich.

• Seth Masket from Mischiefs of Faction on predicting midterms.

• Manuel Alvarez-Rivera on the elections in Puerto Rico.

• Kenneth R. Mayer and Andrew Rudalevige at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage on document declassification.

• Also at the Monkey Cage, Susanne D. Mueller on the elections in Kenya.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and politics. A former political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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