If Joe Biden Wants to Win Big, He Should Pledge to Cancel Student Debt

It’s not just the right thing to do — canceling student debt would be insanely popular and not very difficult. If Joe Biden’s supporters are serious about him winning, they should pressure him hard to do it.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden delivers his acceptance speech on the fourth night of the Democratic National Convention on August 20, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. Win McNamee / Getty

If Joe Biden promises to cancel all student debt, he will defeat Donald Trump in a landslide. Everyone who is serious about removing Trump from office should pressure him hard to do it right now.

In the run-up to the 2020 election, liberal and leftist commentators, politicians, and organizers have rightfully stressed the importance of defeating Donald Trump. Aside from Bernie Sanders, the Democratic primary candidates generally gave little sense of what they actually wanted to do as president, instead focusing their campaigns on why they were better positioned to beat Trump than the others (an argument Sanders also made about himself).

Since receiving the Democratic nomination, Joe Biden has offered a few more specific plans, particularly about how to handle the coronavirus crisis. But, by and large, he has followed the same basic strategy as in the primary, hoping to win over voters mostly by not being Donald Trump.

On its face, saying as little as possible looks like a reasonable plan against an unpopular and inept incumbent, especially given Biden’s own long history of embarrassing, unforced errors. But there is a serious risk that a lethargic campaign and new barriers to voting will lead to depressed turnout, which would likely result in a Trump victory. This is especially true because, while Trump may be bad at governing, he is a talented campaigner who thrives when he is allowed to set the agenda.

Meanwhile, in the midst of a pandemic, Trump is doing everything in his power to reduce mail-in voting, potentially forcing millions of people to risk getting a life-threatening virus if they want to cast their ballots. Greater absentee voting is widely seen as potentially benefiting Biden.

Democratic politicians are clearly worried about these two prospects, but as usual, they have relied heavily on a string of multimillionaires and billionaires to scold and cajole large segments of the party’s base, rather than offering anything of substance that voters actually want.

The wishful thinking in Michelle Obama’s convention speech sums up the party’s strategy well. As Branko Marcetic points out, Obama spent about forty seconds of a twenty-minute speech discussing Biden’s platform, while urging viewers to “vote like we did in 2008 and 2012” and to “show up with the same level of passion and hope for Joe Biden.”

Meanwhile, Biden remains in the lead, but his polling numbers against Trump have actually fallen just before and during the Democratic convention, a time when candidates traditionally enjoy higher numbers than average.

Everyone in the Democratic Party has argued that the most important political task in the world is to remove Trump from office. At the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama argued that Trump’s r-election would put the very existence of American democracy at risk, echoing a sentiment shared by many others over the past year. And sympathetic columnists have begun to argue that because of Trump’s intransigence, “Biden needs a landslide just to win.”

But the plan to do that rests on — what, exactly? It’s not clear.

What if Biden could guarantee an explosion in turnout among new voters and the party’s base? What if he could do it with a campaign promise he could keep even without cooperation from a Congress still likelier than not to remain under partial Republican control? What if this proposal would cost the federal government very little money?

Biden can easily make such a promise: cancel all student debt. The real question is, how hard will everyone who sees a Biden landslide as essential push him to do it?

You Want to Win by 1 Point, or 30 Points?

If Obama and others really believe that Trump’s reelection means something like the end of American democracy, then surely canceling all student debt is a small price to pay to maintain it.

The proposal is so straightforward, and the electoral benefits so obvious, that any politician or pundit who doesn’t push the campaign to promise full student debt cancelation simply isn’t serious when they say it is critical for Biden to win.

As I and others have previously written, the president holds immense power over student debt through the “compromise and settlement” provision of the legislation that first authorized the federal government to issue student loans. Among other things, the compromise and settlement provision permits the Department of Education to waive its right to collect student debt.

As Meagan Day put it, by using this provision,

[The president can] issue an executive order directing his secretary of education to immediately write off all student loan debt for which the federal government is the creditor, which is the majority of student loan debt in the United States. The executive order could also direct the Department of Education to assume all the debt of borrowers who owe money to private lenders, and write that off too, reducing Americans’ student loan burden from $1.5 trillion to zero.

While $1.5 trillion sounds like a lot of money, that is the total amount of student debt the government owns, only a small portion of which is collected each year. In 2017, the federal government collected a yearly revenue of $3.3 trillion. By canceling all student debt, Biden would forego a small amount of annual federal revenue. But in return, more than 44 million Americans, nearly all of them of voting age, would be permanently relieved of a serious financial burden.

Beyond the considerable financial impact, these tens of millions would no longer have to worry about when the confusing and temporary suspension on student debt collection will end. Nor would they have to worry about the frequently perplexing and humiliating mechanics of actually paying off their loans via corrupt and incompetent debt servicing companies, a process which anyone who’s gone through it will tell you seems deliberately designed to add insult to financial injury.

Beyond the immediate jolt to the economy resulting from an increase in consumer confidence, a clear and unambiguous promise to cancel all student debt would mean 44 million Americans and their partners, dependents, and family members would have thousands of dollars riding on the outcome of the election.

What stronger motivation is there to vote for Biden, than knowing his victory would wipe out the debt stopping you from buying a house, getting surgery, or starting a family?

What Base Does the Party Really Want?

If the stakes are as high as Democratic Party elites say they are, why aren’t they doing more to motivate people to vote? Why aren’t they pushing a simple, cheap plan that would inspire a once-in-a-generation voting boom?

Part of the answer comes from who would benefit from student debt cancellation. While people of all ages and backgrounds hold student debt, it is concentrated most heavily among young people, and heaviest of all among black and Latino young people. These are the groups who were most likely to vote for Bernie Sanders in the primary and who are least likely to vote in general.

Imagine the electoral impact if Sanders and Biden were to appear on stage side by side to announce that Biden had decided to fully adopt Bernie’s plan to cancel student debt.

Unfortunately, Biden has done nothing of the kind. In fact, he’s done nothing of substance at all to win over these potential voters, the very voters who could earn him a landslide. Instead, they are simply harangued by party leaders, instructed to feel enthusiastic but given nothing to feel enthusiasm for. After all, these are the people Biden famously declared he has “no empathy” for.

Instead, Biden and the Democrats have focused on giving hard-right Republicans like John Kasich and Meg Whitman the spotlight to explain why people who share their politics should feel comfortable voting for Biden. These voters, it seems, deserve to be persuaded rather than ordered around.

Rather than motivate a large untapped base that would give it a sure win, Biden and the Democrats are playing a risky game and going for a miniscule margin of victory that relies on a small number of persuadable Republicans.

They aren’t acting like they think democracy is at stake. They aren’t acting like beating Trump is the world-historical task they say it is. Rather, what’s most important is beating him with a voter base that won’t push the party too hard to make things better for working-class and poor people. It’s worth it to risk losing, to win that way.

The most important thing is not really to win but, to quote Joe Biden, to make sure “no one’s standard of living will change, nothing [will] fundamentally change.”

It’s the year 2020, and anything could happen. Joe Biden could very well win this election. But if he follows the path he’s on, it won’t be because of anything he’s done.

Give us something to vote for, Joe. Cancel student debt.