Column: Democrats and the 'free stuff' dilemma

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a rally Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016, in Greenville, S.C. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a rally Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016, in Greenville, S.C. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

For independent and left-leaning voters still yet to make up their minds between primary rivals Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the biggest ideological wedge seems to exist between their thoughts and policies on “free stuff.” Sanders champions free college education and single-payer healthcare, while Clinton looks to work with Obamacare and cap student loan payments and interest.

So who should Democrats trust with their vote?

Clinton, admittedly a more moderate candidate in the Democratic race for the nomination, has faced tough criticism from farther-left voters and Sanders himself, who both say it is too late for establishment politics to fix the suppression of middle class wages, or raise up the 47 million Americans currently living in poverty.

While both agree a Democratic president is essential for continuing the recovery of middle class and low-income communities, Clinton’s platform has purposefully been more “progress” than “revolution,” and many voters still question the hard distinctions between her and Sanders.

In a victory speech after a long-fought primary battle in Nevada Saturday, Clinton clearly separated herself from her opponent.

“If you left college with a ton of loans... you need help right now with the debt you already have... but I want you to think about this,” Clinton said. “It can’t just be about what we’re going to give you, it has to be what we’re going to build together.”

But what about the free and low cost educations built together by the people of Germany, Finland, Brazil, Slovenia, Norway, France and Sweden? Even in Mexico, public college is nearly free, only requiring a few hundred dollars in fees in most circumstances (this writer will finish up a modest degree in political science this May with some $70k in private student loan debt).

To be fair, Clinton has suggested a variety of proposals to reign in or lower some costs of higher education, but why all the talk against more free taxpayer-funded resources? Those in favor of single-payer healthcare, free public colleges and more infrastructure investment are simply asking for the tax and spend system they currently feed into to better fit their needs – and politicians should be responding.

Private colleges and high-end doctors and surgeons will still exist either way, but should the government really sit back while citizens are priced out of attaining higher education or medical care?

Some critics of Sanders have gone as far in some cases as insisting his supporters don’t understand economics, especially when it comes to guaranteeing paid family leave and a $15 minimum wage. Conservative pundits have been quick to point to Sanders’ platform as pandering to “buy votes,” but for Sanders, the promises are shaped as a shared investment to bring America into step with the modern world.

And, to set the record straight, increasing funding for these public programs is easily accomplished, as Sanders’ plan lays out, through a fraction-of-a-percent transaction tax on Wall Street speculation, and through closing tax loopholes and deductions that balloon the deficit for the benefit of the wealthy along with other adjustments.

With healthcare, another large topic in Democrat’s “free stuff” dilemma, dispelling individual costs should be a no brainer. America is the only industrialized nation not providing health coverage to all of its citizens, so with some 20 million still uninsured after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, shouldn’t tackling that issue be the next step?

Instead of closing the gap with Medicare-for-all, Clinton seems narrowly focused on improving the ACA, which, transformational as it was, still revolves around the will and profits of large private insurers and pharmaceutical companies.

While Clinton’s policies may very well win over the hearts of Democrats fair and square, her campaign and its supporters shouldn’t be shying away from or shaming the politics of expanding taxpayer-funded resources.

If Hillary Clinton is the kind of Democrat to say public colleges or healthcare shouldn’t be free, would she have been against Social Security, or publicly funded parks, highways, police, fire departments, and unemployment insurance back when they were revolutionary ideas?

Clinton’s attempts in providing inspiring but contrasting rhetoric to Sanders’ ideas start to sound like the “Right to Rise” politics of conservatism in some instances—not very inspiring in a general election campaign.

Still, the race for the Democratic nomination hangs in the balance. Sanders’ increasing momentum from an easily dismissed “summer fling” candidate to a formidable opponent shows loud and clear that his politics aren’t as radical as some pundits would like us to believe.

With Clinton’s platform having already drifted more left to match Sanders rhetoric on wages and campaign finance reform, it’s time she and all Democrats embrace single payer healthcare and tuition-free public colleges as the next big step for the party and the country.


Bennett Cognato is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at bennett.cognato@uconn.edu.