When hell freezes over, it has been said, Minnesota public schools will open two hours late. Living in such a forbidding climate breeds stoic realism. The political leaders the state has produced, such as Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, while proud liberal Democrats, were not carried away by wishful thinking. Eugene McCarthy, who opposed Lyndon Johnson in hopes of ending the Vietnam War, brought a certain wistful resignation to the effort. He wasn’t going to win but trudged on anyway.
Minnesota’s senior senator, Amy Klobuchar, who announced her presidential candidacy as snow covered the platform, is positioning herself as a reasonable and pragmatic Democrat — and it suits her. She considers the Green New Deal “aspirational,” and expresses measured reservations about Medicare for All.
At her CNN town hall at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., the other night, Klobuchar told an assuredly disappointed student that she does not favor “free college” for just anybody who says they want to go.
These positions alone set the third-term senator apart from the rest of the Democratic field. It doesn’t mean, though, that her pragmatism will prove to be practical. She told the student that she wants to make it “easier” for students to refinance their debt. “If millionaires can refinance their yachts,” she said, “students should be able to refinance their loans.” It’s a crowd-pleasing argument, if it can be called an argument at all, but also specious.
Students, after all, can and do refinance their loans. But making it “easier” to do so won’t make college any cheaper for young people eager to enroll. It will probably make higher education more costly by making it seem less expensive to prospective students and their families.
Klobuchar hasn’t been specific about her plan — doing so might take the bloom off the rose — but Sen. Elizabeth Warren has, and Warren’s plan might be politically appealing but is bad policy.
Warren has proposed a federal program that would allow students to refinance at current interest rates, which the Congressional Budget Office says will cost $60 billion. If the average borrower took advantage of the plan, as costly as it would be for everybody else, his or her monthly payment would go down by about $8 a month. Those who owe more than $44,000 would pay $15 less. These reductions won’t help the borrower very much, and they are so minimal that they can’t be expected to reduce delinquency or default rates. That means they won’t help the lender, which is the taxpaying public. (Upon graduation, students in New Hampshire, according to CNN, carry on average about $36,000 in debt.)
Making refinancing easier, unless the details are spelled out, sounds pretty good, which is what politicians want when they’re campaigning. But such plans do nothing to fix the problem, and fixing problems is what pragmatists say they can do. They present themselves as the realists who take a good hard look at difficult situations and proceed based on solid facts.
Sen. Klobuchar at St. Anselm College said women candidates should “speak softly and carry a big statistic.” That’s probably not a winning slogan, and none of us wants to be pelted with metrics. That includes people who regard blizzards of verifiable numbers as a protection against Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts.” Even so, we’d like to see more about Klobuchar’s plans. That will help us figure out how pragmatic they really are.