Op-Ed: Are “Impossible Promises” The Dems Achilles Heel? By J.E. Dean


Will the Democrats lose the 2020 election by promising too much?  Will there be an end to the bidding to buy votes? Consider Senator Elizabeth Warren’s plan to forgive student loan debt, which was criticized for being too generous, included a limit of $50,000 per borrower and a means test. Senator Bernie Sanders has topped it.  He would forgive the entire book of $1.6 trillion in outstanding federal and private student loans with no means test at all.   

If I had student loan debt and was planning on supporting Warren, I would need to rethink that.   And stand by for another Democrat to try to top Sanders—millions of Americans have paid off their student loans, some of them apparently stupid enough to make prepayments.  Is it fair to “penalize” these voters simply because their student loans are paid off?

Warren would pay for her student loan plan, as well as more than another dozen plans, with her ultra-millionaires’ tax.  This tax effectively makes her plan for student loan debt relief free to everyone who would benefit. Similarly, Sanders proposes a transaction tax on stock market trades—relatively small per trade taxes that he claims would raise $2 trillion over 10 years.  

Does anyone believe either candidate can deliver on these promises?  Apparently, the answer is yes. Warren is enjoying a surge in popularity.  Sanders hopes to end his slide in the polls by outbidding her. One might conclude some voters polled are ready to buy “impossible promises.” More charitably, one might also conclude that these voters know campaign promises are “aspirational,” don’t really expect to see the benefits promised, and use the promises to evaluate where the candidates’ hearts are while at the same time hoping for the possibility that the promise may be kept.

While “impossible promises” are clearly in vogue, some Democrats, and no doubt a lot of other voters, see them as irresponsible.  Several Democrats appear unwilling to join in the bidding war. Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and others come to mind. These are progressive Democrats, but not progressive enough to promise multiple massive new benefit programs or a complete remake of the U.S. economy.

Thankfully, some Democrats see the “impossible promises” as harmful to the party.  Maryland’s own John Delaney has suggested that impossible promises will lead to electoral defeat if embraced by the party’s ultimate nominee.  He believes independent voters will be lost. It’s also likely that some voters will find the promises insincere and will effectively dismiss the candidates making the promises as not truthful.

As this week’s initial debates get underway, it will be interesting to watch who advocates the impossible promises and who pushes back.  In a sense, we might witness a debate weighing hope against practicality. Stay tuned.

J.E. Dean of Oxford is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant. He is a former counsel to the House Committee on Education and Labor.  For more than 30 years he advised clients on federal education and social service policy. He is the former chairman of the National College Access Network (NCAN), a group promoting success in higher education among underrepresented groups, and KnowledgeWorks Foundation, a national leader in strategic foresight and education innovation. He is an advocate for the environment, education reform, civic public debate, and good government.



Letters to Editor

  1. Joseph T Coyle, MD says

    Studies demonstrate that the huge educational debts carried by students and graduates are having quite adverse effects on our Society. Couples are marrying later, putting off having children later, if at all, delaying home purchases and skewing their career decisions. Sanders and Warren provide strategies to offset the costs of retiring student debt, which in fact would be a step forward in correcting the historically huge income inequality in the US. The current administration gave corporations a nearly $2 Trillion tax cut, which went right to the deficit, thereby blowing up the national debt. It is interesting that Denmark (world’s happiest country) , Sweden and Germany and many other countries have FREE college and graduate education and prosperous middle classes. Maybe, Sanders and Warren are not engaged in a cynical “bidding war” but actually proposing sound policy.

    Joseph T Coyle, MD

  2. james durham says

    Indeed, promises based on nefarious assumptions like “no harm to the average taxpayer”, and various and sundry “carrots on a stick”
    are not helping the Democratic party or this country.

    An education’s main purpose aside from enlightenment and mental growth, is RESPONSIBILITY for actions taken. I was taught that
    if I incurred debt(financial or otherwise) I was honor bound to repay.

    Many people want everything for nothing…I find no problem paying 20% of my medicare bill and the deductible for Medicare B.
    Free “medicare for all” and “forgiveness of debt” do not display the cultural history of hard work and responsibility that the world
    USED to admire about the USA. Of course, many people don’t like to work, and that mentality leads to an obese armchair nation.

    While there are always people who need SOME help, the distinction between needing and wanting is a conundrum which
    won’t be solved by easily, especially by the “gift horse” espoused by Democratic canditates.

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