Election 2020

Klobuchar Breaks With Progressives on Free College, Green New Deal

The Minnesota senator says the national debt constrains policymaking, giving the rare impression of a candidate who has actually thought things through.


Glen Stubbe/TNS/Newscom

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) took a careful but deliberate step towards the political center on Monday night by showing skepticism about progressive proposals like the Green New Deal and free college tuition for all, while pointing to the looming threat of America's growing national debt as a major constraint on policymaking.

Her appearance on an hour-long town hall event hosted by CNN's Don Lemon is likely to alienate her campaign from the ascendant left wing of the Democratic Party in some ways, but Klobuchar's hesitance to support huge new entitlement programs will set her apart in a crowded field of 2020 presidential hopefuls in and is a welcome nod toward fiscal sanity. At the very least, it gives the impression that she has given serious thought to the important question of how to pay for the myriad promises that her fellow candidates have been making in the early primary season.

The most striking example of Klobuchar's relatively disciplined stance came during a question posed by a college student, Griffin Sinclair-Wingate, who said he graduated from college in 2017 and pays more towards his student loans each month than his rent. He asked whether she would support free four-year college tuition for all, including for undocumented and formerly incarcerated individuals.

After a bit of meandering about wanting to make it easier for college grads to refinance their student loan debt and called for expanding eligibility for federal Pell grants, Klobuchar gave a straight answer.

"No, I am not for free four-year college for all," Klobuchar said. "If I was a magic genie and could give that to everyone and we could afford it, I would…I've gotta tell the truth. We have a mountain of debt that the Trump administration keeps making worse and worse, and I don't want to leave that on the shoulders of these kids too."

During the 2016 campaign, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) estimated the cost of free college tuition for all to be about $75 billion annually. With the country facing a $22 trillion (and growing) national debt, it seems crazy to create a program with an annual price tag that large when the total student loan debt held by Americans is about $1.5 trillion. Sure, that's a significant hit to many younger Americans, but Klobuchar's well-taken point on Monday night is that today's college kids won't be helped by free tuition if they graduate into the early stages of a debt crisis.

Asked more directly about the national debt later in the program, Klobuchar showed some basic policy chops there as well. She called for raising the cap on payroll taxes that fund Social Security—right now, those taxes apply only to the first $128,400 earned annually—and reconsidering the 2016 corporate income tax cuts, though she stopped short of calling for a full repeal and a return to the previous rates. Those are neither revolutionary nor fully adequate solutions for the size of the problem, but they are certainly better than pretending it does not exist.

Mindfullness of the nation's precarious longterm fiscal standing seems to inform Klobuchar's skepticism towards other top Democratic initiatives too. While supporting Medicare for All as "something we can look to in the future," Klobuchar said Monday that her preference would be to build on the Affordable Care Act by creating a new public option plan within Medicaid that individuals and families could buy into, either as a replacement for, or in addition to, the state-level insurance exchanges.

On the Green New Deal, Klobuchar said some of the plan's goals were more aspirational than realistic—intended to "get this debate going," she said. "Do I think we can cross every 'T' and dot every 'I' in 10 years? Actually, I think that would be very difficult to do."

That's not the full embrace that many other Democratic contenders have given it, but in this instance Klobuchar doesn't come off looking as good. If she's skeptical the Green New Deal can accomplish its goals—and there's plenty of reasons to be skeptical—then why support such a massive expansion of government spending and the disruption of several whole industries in the name of merely continuing the debate over climate change?

By no means did Klobuchar come out of Monday's townhall looking like a fiscal conservative. The vision she outlined for a Klobuchar administration would almost surely see greater government spending on health care, education, and infrastructure. She called for new government programs to combat climate change and the opioid epidemic. She said the long-term debt crisis can be solved without making any major changes to Social Security.

Still, in this Democratic primary there was plenty that set Klobuchar apart. Whether that's a good thing for her remains to be seen. Despite a massive edge in money and establishment support, Hillary Clinton struggled to win in 2016 as Democratic voters fell for Sanders' pie in the sky plans for free everything. This time around, the left lane of the Democratic primary seems more crowded—and that was before Sanders officially joined the circus on Tuesday morning. Meanwhile, with former Vice President Joe Biden still on the sidelines, there is no obvious frontrunner in the centrist category. There's no longer any doubt that's where Klobuchar is aiming.