Marco Rubio caught up in the politics of student loans

This week’s Debt Report: The partisan politics of student loans

Two U.S. Senators — Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Elizabeth Warren — made headlines this week for talking about student loans. Because both are perceived as presidential aspirants, their policy ideas will inevitably be reduced to this: “So who won?”


This isn’t an opinion. It can be calculated by adding up the media coverage. Not the quantity of it, but the breadth of it.

On Wednesday, the Florida Republican proposed the Dynamic Repayment Act with Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia. On his website, Rubio described the act like this…

Federal student loan payments would be automatically adjusted based upon income. Borrowers will be able to repay loans at a more affordable pace and with more manageable payments, providing relief to those who worry about how they will repay their debt just as they are getting started in the workforce.

The result was a trifecta of cautiously complimentary media coverage.

Left, right, and down the center

Left-leaning media: “It looks pretty solid overall,” Slate wrote. “All federal loan borrowers would be enrolled in an income-based program where they paid 10 percent of their earnings each month, with a $10,000 annual exemption. Meanwhile, the government would collect the money directly from workers’ paychecks, just like tax withholding.”

Right-wing media: “The issue may give Rubio, 43, a toehold with college-age voters and recent graduates, a segment of the electorate that overwhelmingly backed Obama in 2008 and 2012,” Newsmax wrote.

Business media: “These changes won’t fix what ails the financing of U.S. higher education. But they offer a sensible, practical and affordable way to clean up a mess this system created,” Bloomberg wrote.

Elizabeth Warren wrapped up in the politics of student loans

Warren warning

Meanwhile there’s Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, no stranger to the politics of student loans. She spent that same Wednesday lashing out at GOP Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, a month after Congress blocked her own plan for student loans.

The possible liberal challenger to Hillary Clinton had introduced The Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act, which essentially would let students refinance their student loans just like homeowners do with their mortgages.

Last week, McConnell was campaigning in Kentucky when he told a town hall meeting, “I think it’s outrageous that it costs as much as it does, but I don’t think the federal government ought to be in the business of forgiving, in effect, obligations owed.”

Get help with your undergraduate or graduate school student loan debt.

Warren was speaking at a liberal event called the Make Progress Summit and said, “Mitch McConnell actually suggested that the solution for college affordability is for young people to lower their expectations and become more cost-conscious, because he said not everyone needs to go to Yale.” She said McConnell wants students to “dream a little smaller.”

She also added, “This really does boil down to three words: Billionaires or students?”

Warren reaction

The headlines for Warren weren’t as bipartisan as Rubio’s — “Warren Pits Billionaires Against Students” wrote Bloomberg, “Political System Is ‘Rigged’ By Wealthy, Powerful Lobbyists,” said CBS DC. While that’s sure to fire up Warren’s progressive base, Rubio reached out in a bipartisan way that didn’t alienate his own base.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton hasn’t said anything of note about this issue, and neither have the other possible contenders on the Republican side. Yet the issue isn’t going away. In fact, it’s getting worse.

National student loan debt stands at $1.2 trillion, more than that for credit cards. This could be the first direct young-voter campaign issue since the Vietnamese War. And so far, Rubio is owning it.

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