Op-Ed: Are “Impossible Promises” The Dems Achilles Heel? By J.E. Dean


Will the Democrats lose the 2020 election by promising too much?  Will there be an end to the bidding to buy votes? Consider Senator Elizabeth Warren’s plan to forgive student loan debt, which was criticized for being too generous, included a limit of $50,000 per borrower and a means test. Senator Bernie Sanders has topped it.  He would forgive the entire book of $1.6 trillion in outstanding federal and private student loans with no means test at all.   

If I had student loan debt and was planning on supporting Warren, I would need to rethink that.   And standby for another Democrat to try to top Sanders—millions of Americans have paid off their student loans, some of them apparently stupid enough to make prepayments.  Is it fair to “penalize” these voters simply because their student loans are paid off?

Warren would pay for her student loan plan, as well as more than another dozen plans, with her ultra-millionaires’ tax.  This tax effectively makes her plan for student loan debt relief free to everyone who would benefit. Similarly, Sanders proposes a transaction tax on stock market trades—relatively small per trade taxes that he claims would raise $2 trillion over 10 years.  

Does anyone believe either candidate can deliver on these promises?  Apparently, the answer is yes. Warren is enjoying a surge in popularity.  Sanders hopes to end his slide in the polls by outbidding her. One might conclude some voters polled are ready to buy “impossible promises.” More charitably, one might also conclude that these voters know campaign promises are “aspirational,” don’t really expect to see the benefits promised, and use the promises to evaluate where the candidates’ hearts are while at the same time hoping for the possibility that the promise may be kept.

While “impossible promises” are clearly in vogue, some Democrats, and no doubt a lot of other voters, see them as irresponsible.  Several Democrats appear unwilling to join in the bidding war. Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and others come to mind. These are progressive Democrats, but not progressive enough to promise multiple massive new benefit programs or a complete remake of the U.S. economy.

Thankfully, some Democrats see the “impossible promises” as harmful to the party.  Maryland’s own John Delaney has suggested that impossible promises will lead to electoral defeat if embraced by the party’s ultimate nominee.  He believes independent voters will be lost. It’s also likely that some voters will find the promises insincere and will effectively dismiss the candidates making the promises as not truthful.

As this week’s initial debates get underway, it will be interesting to watch who advocates the impossible promises and who pushes back.  In a sense, we might witness a debate weighing hope against practicality. Stay tuned.

J.E. Dean of Oxford is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant. He is a former counsel to the House Committee on Education and Labor.  For more than 30 years he advised clients on federal education and social service policy. He is the former chairman of the National College Access Network (NCAN), a group promoting success in higher education among underrepresented groups, and KnowledgeWorks Foundation, a national leader in strategic foresight and education innovation. He is an advocate for the environment, education reform, civic public debate, and good government.


Letters to Editor

  1. Impossible promises? In an economy dominated by technological expertise, these suggestions would seem far more realistic than trickle-down.

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