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Democratic hopefuls steer clear of Biden student loan plan

Several Democratic candidates in tough Senate races are treading carefully when it comes to President Biden’s decision to cancel student loans for millions of borrowers, with some distancing themselves from the new White House plan that has quickly became a major campaign issue. 

The long-awaited move to forgive $10,000 in federal student debt was geared toward gaining support from young people and working Americans just three months out from the midterms. But some Democrats in closely watched Senate races that will help determine control of the chamber have criticized Biden’s policy for not being targeted enough and not addressing underlying issues.

“Student loan forgiveness is seen by some as a cultural war — the elites with degrees who are on their path to economic security versus those who did not attend college and are working their butts off every day to make ends meet,” said Debra Dixon, former chief of staff at the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development at the Department of Education under President Obama.

“By supporting the idea generally, but not wholeheartedly, the senators can try not to alienate the beneficiaries of the student loan forgiveness or those who do not have student loans to forgive,” she said.

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who is joining Biden at an event next month in the Buckeye State, said on Sunday he supports a broader package of debt relief and a tax cut “for all working people” over the student loan forgiveness plan.

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who is facing a tougher-than-expected reelection bid, criticized the student loan forgiveness plan for not being targeted enough and giving one-time cancellation as opposed to solving broader issues.

Meanwhile, other candidates, including incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) and North Carolina Democrat Cheri Beasley, supported the plan. Kelly has a 3-point lead in his race against GOP challenger Blake Masters, according to a poll released on Tuesday, and Beasley has been tied with Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) in the race for North Carolina’s open Senate seat.

“In this case, in particular, I think Democrats are yelling about the places we do agree and we find ourselves politically whispering about the places that we disagree,” said Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright. “I think that’s safe. I think it’s healthy.”

Ivan Zapien, a lobbyist and former Democratic National Committee official, said that an election where the president is not on the ballot allows space for candidates to have their own policies that may be different from what is coming out of the White House.

“That’s the theory of the case for Democrats. We’re gonna find out whether it works out or not. But, in theory, that’s what Democrats are going for,” Zapien said. “Every district and every state is going to take a different approach, and that’s OK.”

Biden fulfilled his 2020 presidential campaign promise by forgiving $10,000 in federal student loans for all borrowers. In what is seen largely as a nod to progressives, he also forgave $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients.

Some progressive candidates want more.

Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), who is slightly trailing behind his GOP challenger Herschel Walker in a recent poll, has been pressing Biden for months for forgiveness of $50,000 per borrower. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman, who is joining Biden at an event on Monday, called the relief only a first step and argued that people who did not go to college need to be supported too.

Seawright argued, though, that Democrats who do not align with Biden’s exact forgiveness plan do not necessarily disagree about the broader issue it works to solve.

“I don’t buy into this and that there’s some controversy because they don’t agree 100 percent with everything the president may have done by way of his executive orders,” he said. “The truth of the matter is they’re in lockstep agreement that something needs to be done and the way we do that is by the elected legislative branch and the executive branch working together.”

Republicans have aggressively leaned into appealing to working Americans who did not go to college when bashing Biden’s policy. They have called the plan unfair and pushed that it is being paid for by taxpayers.

The plan also comes as the U.S. is facing 40-year high inflation, which was already set to be a top issue for Americans in the midterms, with the cost of gas and groceries still high. 

Blue-collar workers overall are a demographic Democrats worry they could lose to the GOP in the midterms, and Biden is betting the enough people will support the forgiveness plan, particularly in minority communities, to ward off these hits from Republicans.

“This is going to have continued vibration throughout the political ecosystem, both downstream and upstream. I think it’s a real opportunity for Democrats to make the contrast between what we have done and what we’ve offered and what [Republicans] have not done and what they have not offered,” Seawright said.

The president mulled his decision on student loans for more than a year, with advocates and Democrats pushing for broad-based forgiveness and the president saying consistently he would make a decision soon. 

The historical decision to implement the most far-reaching student loan forgiveness program ever was eventually made just three months out from November, in the heat of a midterm election that is crucial for Democrats looking to hold on to control of the Senate.

“The timing probably was influenced by politics, but, in something like this, I don’t think there’s ever a good time to do it,” Zapien said. “Obviously, people that weighed the consequences and walk through the politics of this, I don’t think anyone’s shocked with the mixed reactions. People knew what they were getting into.”

Tags Antjuan Seawright Antjuan Seawright Biden Blake Masters Cheri Beasley Debra Dixon Democratic National Committee Department of Education Herschel Walker Ivan Zapien Joe Biden John Fetterman Mark Kelly Michael Bennet pell grant Raphael Warnock student loans Ted Budd Tim Ryan Tim Ryan White House
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