In the second democratic debate at Drake University in Iowa, Hillary Clinton criticized Senator Bernie Sander’s plan for free tuition at public universities. She said, “I don’t think taxpayers should be paying to send Donald Trump’s kids to college.” It’s hard to disagree with that statement for its face-value. But Sanders’ proposed plan would be funded entirely by Wall Street speculation fees. Even if we imagine a modified version of the plan, in which individual taxpayers would foot the bill, Trump’s tax contribution would likely more than subsidize his own children’s education – it would also subsidize the tuition of those students whose families could not otherwise afford to pay.
Clinton’s quip about taxpayers footing the bill for Donald Trump’s kids is typical of criticism of democratic-socialist policies from her GOP counterparts. It panders to the lower and middle classes’ common misconception that they are largely the benefactors, not the beneficiaries, of any redistribution or investment of tax revenue. It is language that belies the fact that at their cores, both of these plans are redistributive. Clinton, rather than try to convince the right-leaning electorate of the merits of her left-leaning plan, instead attempts to manufacture the perception that her opponent’s plan is much further left than it actually is.
The promise of a “debt free” college education is also misleading. Although my college had claimed to have replaced all loans with grants in financial aid packages, I still had to borrow the maximum amount in federal unsubsidized student loans to pay the portion the college wrongly supposed my parents could put up in cash. And my school had great financial aid. My family and I made it out easy. I have relatively little debt, and my parents did not need to borrow against the value of their house or use credit cards to cover expenses in other areas. Precise language is key if we wish to understand just how far each candidate’s plan would go to lessen the burden on real families struggling to afford college.
Clinton’s rhetorical tactic in this exchange is similar to the one she employs when Sanders questions why we should trust she will fight to rein in Wall Street excess when they have been “the major campaign contributor” all along. Sanders said, “Now maybe they’re dumb, and they don’t know what they’re going to get, but I don’t think so.” Clinton then leads off her response by scolding Senator Sanders for impugning her integrity. She then explains that the majority of her small donors are women, and then claims that Wall Street supports her because she did so much to help rebuilt the city in the wake of 9/11. The crowd roars their approval. When prodded by moderators and audience as to the relevance of 9/11 to millions in campaign contributions, she insists that while her “tough” and “comprehensive” plan might not sit well with Wall Street, they nevertheless support her because her actions after 9/11 prove the honesty and righteousness of her cause. The crowd once again roars their approval.
Not a single word of this response addresses Senator Sanders’ original premise that corporations don’t act altruistically. So why don’t the other candidates do more to challenge her? For one, to nit-pick the opposition’s language takes away valuable time a candidate could use to discuss the issues. Secondly, to explicitly attack this style of rhetoric might come across too much like using it oneself. Perhaps most importantly, an underdog candidate such as Sanders must be much more measured and subdued than an establishment favorite such as Clinton. It is clear that he is in the sights not just of Clinton, but of her entire behemoth political machine. He must consider his every word and action taken completely out of context, lest he suffer the same fate as other promising liberal Vermont Democrats before him.
Clinton’s language goes beyond willful self-representation, seemingly into the realm of deliberate exploitation of the science of pushing people’s emotional buttons. It has a polarizing rather than an equilibrating effect. For us rural folk, it’s not unlike capturing sheep to take their wool – it’s much easier if you corral them first. Granted, she is nowhere near as egregious as her fear-mongering Republican counterparts. Nevertheless, her usage represents a similar attempt to stack the deck of political agency.
To believe that the precise ideological effect of these Orwellian quips and non-answers is lost on Clinton and her team is naive. Still, they inevitably dig her into a hole from time to time. But what makes her strategy so pernicious is that to get herself out of that hole, it seems she can simply dig straight through to the other side.