Is Hillary's Personal Story About Student Loans a Fabrication?

Election '16

"I know [student loan forgiveness] works because Bill and I did that. We both borrowed money when we went to law school and we paid it back as a percentage of our income, so I could go to work at the Children's Defense Fund, not some big law firm that would pay me more. I wanted to do the work I loved...I want everyone to have that chance."  

Hillary Clinton tells this story to struggling students. She told it to minority students in Mississippi in November 2015,  and she recently told it again to minority students in Brooklyn.

Her story makes several important points to attract young people who are flocking to Sanders.

First it offers hope that something practical can be done about crushing student loans. Wouldn't it be great if all student debt payments could be reduced to a percentage of income? She argues that is much more realistic than the Sanders free tuition plan.

Second, it suggests humble origins, and therefore combats the troublesome fact that she recently earned as much from one Wall Street speech as the average worker earns in five years. In this story, Hillary, too, had to amass debt just like other financially struggling students. And only by the good fortune of the Yale Law School debt forgiveness program was she able to work her way out of debt with little difficulty. "Everyone should have that chance."

Third, the story allows Hillary to project an image of selfless public service. The forgiveness program spared her from being forced by her loans to work at "some big law firm that would pay me more."

It's a politically potent story that fits neatly together. Too neatly, I think.

Fact or Fiction?

To me, the odds seem high that Hillary's story is just that, an utter fabrication. In all likelihood, her family had enough income to afford Yale Law School in the early 1970s. At that time, the tuition was well in reach for an upper-middle-class family. (I know several of Hillary's law school classmates from similar backgrounds who accumulated no debt.)

But there's a bigger problem with Hillary's story: The loan forgiveness program she refers to didn't even exist in the early 1970s. Yale Law School literature is quite clear on this:

"Some students dream of jobs in smaller firms, nonprofit organizations, public interest, government service or academia. These are jobs that typically pay less than those at large firms. Yale Law School has pioneered a loan repayment assistance program to allow these students to take their dream jobs without worrying about their student loans. 

Established in 1989, the Career Options Assistance Program (COAP) was one of the first loan forgiveness programs of its kind."

1989 is not 1973. Yet doesn't this description sounds similar to the story Hillary tells? 

Obviously, Hillary wants to strengthen her appeal to young people of color, and for good reason. Internal polling shows that not only is she badly losing the youth vote overall,  but also, young people of color are flocking to Sanders. Here are some numbers obtained from reliable sources within the Sanders campaign:

Overall Sanders is winning the following groups of young voters (18 years old to 29).

White: 66% to 28%

Asian Americans: 72% to 24%

Blacks: 51% to 43%

Latinos: 65% to 30%

If you take out the Southern states, all of which have already voted, the Sanders lead is even more lopsided:

White 70% to 24%

Blacks 59% to 34%

Latinos 65% to 30%

Team Hillary has access to the very same data. It is worrisome.

So what?

Don't we all embellish? Aren't all memories somewhat faulty by their very nature? Isn't it natural to airbrush our histories a bit?

Yes, and we expect most politicians do so as a matter of course.

But as much as we expect the tall tales, we don't like it when our candidates make up stories to pander to us. There's also a fear that one lie can lead to another -- that expediency can cause a continual twisting of the truth.

Hillary now claims her vote for the Iraq war was a mistake -- that she was misled by the Bush administration. She also says that she would not send ground troops into the Middle East. Clearly, that's what the American people want to hear, but is it true?

There are reasons to worry. Hillary advocates the use of special ops and a no-fly zone in Syria, for example. One could easily imagine a scenario in which ground troops would be needed if these operations went sour, and pilots and special ops were captured or in danger. The bottom line is whether or not Hillary is an interventionist, a nation-builder, a potential president who will sacrifice American lives and resources to project military power around the globe. She admires Henry Kissinger for a reason. She's not likely to surround herself with Sanders-type doves.

This suggests that she is likely to do and say what she believes to be in her self-interest.

And isn't that precisely why young people are flocking to Sanders? They see and sense that Hillary's campaign is all about Hillary. 

Pragmatism as Cover

Hillary wraps it all together with the idea of pragmatism -- that she is the one who can get things done. Sanders rarely mentions himself. Rather he is asking us to join together so that we can build a political revolution. Big difference.

This very difference is why Hillary may be more appealing to many older voters. They know it's not easy to make change. It requires careful policies and practices. It's hard work. Youthful ideals (even when embodied by Sanders, the senior citizen) are not enough. We need to engage in the hard pragmatic work, step by step. That's just what we all learn as we grow older, isn't it?

To paraphrase an old saying: If you're not an idealist when you're young, you have no heart. If you're not pragmatic when you're old, you have no head.

The Slide from Pragmatism to Opportunism?

There's a slippery slope from pragmatism to pure self interest. The call for practicality  easily fits with doing whatever you think best serves your interests at the time. It also can seamlessly fit into a wider range of questionable policies like ending welfare as we know it, destroying Glass-Steagall, supporting NAFTA, voting for the Iraq war, and toppling Qaddafi with little or no planning for the aftermath.

In the end, the problem of pragmatism is really a problem of  accountability. By stressing  the process of pragmatism, the focus is on the person who drives it forward. But there's nothing within pragmatism that tells us anything about vision and goals. If we don't have a clear idea of where Hillary is headed, pragmatically or not, how do we hold her accountable? And why do we think she will resist the pull of political opportunism? 

This election is not about pragmatism versus idealism. Everyone is forced to be pragmatic when trying to get things done and everyone has ideals. Rather, it's about holding leaders accountable to their vision and having confidence that they will remain true to it. Pragmatism is not a vision and embellishments do not fill us with confidence.

Young people have figured this out. Sanders must hope that their parents will as well.

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