OPINION

Don't forgive $50,000 in student loan debt. It's bad for Joe Biden, Democrats and America.

A Great Forgiveness via Biden executive order would stir resentment and hurt Democrats' ability to defend the government from mendacious Republicans.

Tom Nichols
Opinion columnist

Some prominent Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, are pressuring President Joe Biden to forgive up to $50,000 in student loan debt by issuing an executive order. This is a bad idea on so many levels it is difficult to know where to begin.

It should be uncontroversial to insist that American citizens 18 or older are adults who are responsible for what they bought when they signed, as the line from "Glengarry Glen Ross" goes,on the line which is dotted.” Taking out a loan you didn’t understand is not fraud, no matter how much you might wish it were, and there is no compelling reason for making this debt vanish with a flick of Biden’s pen.

But the debate over loan forgiveness is now driven by emotion rather than reason. For its proponents, it is a humanitarian act to help people who were, apparently, hoodwinked into taking out loans to go to college and only miserable tightwads would reject it. For opponents, it is another example of decadent Americans wanting taxpayer bailouts for their personal choices, a liberal boomer gift to their own grandchildren that no one will ever see again.

Student loan forgiveness is bad politics

I realize this all sounds like an impassioned plea for young people to get off my lawn, but I am neither a boomer nor a millennial or a Gen Xer. My little notch of the population born between 1958 and 1964 was too young for Buffalo Springfield and too old for Nirvana. I came from a working-class family, the first to go to college, and I spent years paying off student loans that in the late 1970s were being issued at inflation-driven rates of nearly 14%. I understand the impulse to take this financial millstone and make it all just go away.

This all makes for powerful talking points, but maybe not in the way Democrats might hope.

So let’s talk instead about whether loan forgiveness is good politics in a time when the Democratic Party is holding out by a razor-thin margin against the authoritarian political movement known as the modern Republican Party. There are three reasons the loan forgiveness plan mostly hurts the Democrats in the near term. These are cynical and unpleasant issues to have to discuss, but they are not going to go away between now and the next two election cycles.

Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Feb. 21, 2006.

First, the Republicans will portray this as a costly giveaway that shows just how much Democrats care about college graduates and not at all about working people — and for once, their class-warfare rhetoric won’t be entirely wrong. The beneficiaries will be a select group of Americans.

Indeed, the Republicans never miss a trick. They will seize on examples of untypical Americans like those profiled recently in a New York magazine article that was, to put it mildly, unhelpful to the case for forgiveness. It featured a 40ish man who admits he transferred to a pricey school to study film production, a 20-something whose $9,800 in remaining debt is preventing her elective breast reduction surgery, and a gay couple — both full-time professionals with graduate degrees — who feel that they do not have enough money to adopt a baby. (I know these costs well; I am an adoptive father.)

Hard sell: How the government can help people pay off student loans and be fair about it 

If this is the argument for compassion and social justice, these examples will not resonate with the noncollege-educated, working class who already feel pinched by other debts for which no such magical relief is available, such as medical bills and housing.

Democrats might counter that minority students, not middle-class whites, would disproportionately benefit because they are more likely to carry student debts as a group. But most of the beneficiaries overall would be college-educated whites, and at $50,000 a pop, these would be students who made some pretty expensive choices. (The average undergraduate leaves college with more than $30,000 in debt.)

To his credit, Biden seems to understand this problem, and he has said explicitly that he cannot support a plan that ends up subsidizing Ivy League educations. Schumer and Warren nonetheless seem determined to walk right into that political buzz saw.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., at a news conference about student debt on Feb. 4, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

Second, it is a bad idea (in both politics and military strategy) to pay for the same victories twice. If the goal is to expand the Democratic coalition, then rewarding a group that is already tilting to the Democratic Party — college-educated voters — while shrugging at people who are going broke from major illnesses and other unavoidable problems is the wrong way to do it.

It’s one thing to shore up the base; it’s another to alienate gettable voters while doing so.

Third, the insistence that this be done by executive order — a habit both parties must break — without any significant legislative reform around education debt (which might include reforming bankruptcy laws, abolishing interest or even, perish the thought, making the colleges partly responsible for a situation they have helped create) means that there is no way to present this plan as anything other than a one-time voter buyout. Biden, wisely, prefers a legislative solution, but last week White House chief of staff Ron Klain said the administration is looking into the extent of the president's legal authority on the issue.

Joe Biden should hold firm

Democrats should not underestimate how a push to eliminate debt by fiat will create resentment in every direction — among people who didn’t go to college and have crippling debts of other kinds, among those who went but who made choices to go without incurring major debt, among those who went and paid off their debts, and perhaps most worrisome, among future voters who will never get the same deal. 

Unless the plan is to engage in cyclical bailouts of student debt, future generations will continue to struggle while they have to hear about the one golden day of The Great Forgiveness, which was bestowed on middle-class Democrats and then vanished into the mists of history — and the Republicans will make sure that today’s college students remember it that way years from now.

Reform is what we need: I took out student loans with eyes wide open, but too many degrees aren't worth the debt

College is too expensive for many reasons, but waving a benevolent hand and simply obliterating debt will create social antagonism, undermine the basic virtue of paying one’s debts and perhaps most important, in the short term, hurt the ability of the Democratic Party to defend control of the government from the utterly mendacious Republicans.

With all the problems facing the United States in 2021, is student loan forgiveness worth the political capital the Democrats are going to have to spend to get it? Biden doesn’t seem to think so, and he should hold firm.

Tom Nichols, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, is the author of “Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from within on Modern Democracy,” coming in August. Follow him on Twitter: @RadioFreeTom